Answer: They are giant project grants.
What does this have to with non-profit project grants?
The scientific research grant has more in common with other types of grant proposals than you might think. Overall, science grants are evidence based collaborative research efforts. Everyone wants a competitive proposal regardless of academic discipline or type of non-profit organization.
A competitive scientific research proposal has the following characteristics:
1. It is a compelling scientific story with a testable hypothesis supported by the published work of other scientists.
2. The compelling story includes current results from the proposer as prior or preliminary work.
3. The proposer(s), other researchers, and students have had or will have the appropriate experience necessary to do the work.
4. The supporting institution provides the place and contributes other resources to the project.
Do these characteristics look familiar?
They do to me, as I broaden my understanding of writing grants for non-profits. I keep reading and hearing about true need, evidence-based, measurable outcomes, staff qualifications, institutional support and the like.
A scientific research grant is all about the experiments as the project. The researchers will do the experiments to answer their questions by testing the hypothesis. The answers to those questions meet an immediate need to them, but can meet the need of new information to the wider scientific community, if not society. The proposed experiments are the core of such a proposal, therefore the project. Projects or experiments, including those outside a laboratory cost money. Equipment, materials, and supplies must be purchased. Travel costs to distant sites add up.
People are responsible for doing the experiments. The “mad scientist” (principal investigator) working alone in the lab with a faithful assistant is a misconception. Even current films, such as The Avengers contribute to this myth. People actually do the science in a collaborative way and people cost money. Students (undergraduate and graduate), technicians, postdoctoral researchers, and principal investigators all need to be paid. Certainly, if personnel are hired to conduct a project, then their salaries and benefits are part of the project costs.
An earlier post stated that research grants are hybrids of project grants and operating support grants. In principle, research grants are project grants, but in paying some people and in grant administration they have some of the characteristics of grants for operating support. That is a topic for another post.