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The ARS Research Project Plan Instructions
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Create a Word file according to these instructions. Please name the file: NP# Lead Scientist Project # PrePlan. Example: 303 Smith 1234-56789-000-00D PrePlan

The plan should be formatted for:
8.5x11" letter, single spaced with 1" margins and not smaller than 11-pt.
Header:Lead scientist's last name flushed left, page numbers flushed right, excluding the cover page.  Begin page numbering with page 1 for the cover page but do no show page number on the cover page.
On all pages with version date flushed left, file name flushed right. Wherever possible, the project plan file should include all appendices and letters of collaboration.  If this is not possible, these items can be included in a second, separate PDF file, named in the convention 303 Smith 1234-56789-000-00D PrePlan-App, however, this should be avoided if at all possible. The project plans can be sent electronically as a PDF file; however, for the post project plan, a hardcopy of the signature page with Area Director's original signature should be sent to OSQR.

The plan should not exceed:

SY's on Project

Maximum Number of Pages

< 2


2 - 3.9


4- 6.9




from Objectives through Approach and Procedures. Up to four pages of schemes, figures and diagrams can be included in the text and will not be counted against the page limit. This first part should flow from one section to the next without new page breaks.

The Cover Page, Signature Page, Table of Contents, Project Summary, Objectives, Literature Cited, Past Accomplishments of Each Investigator, Issues of Concern Statement, and Appendices should all be started on new pages.

Plan Details

Cover Page (not counted in page limit)Example

National Program-The title of the National Program(s) under which the research described below is conducted.
Dates-State the general period in which the research project will be peer reviewed.
Old ARS Research Project Number-The project number for the expiring project. If projects are being combined, list those that are being combined. If a project is being split, note that the old project is being split during this process.
Research Management Unit -Name of Research Management Unit.
Location- City and State.
Title- A brief, clear, specific description of the project. Used alone, it should provide a clear indication of what the project is specifically about. It should not contain more than 140 characters including letters, symbols and spaces.
Investigator(s)-List all scientists assigned to conduct the research being planned and their percent commitment to the project, shown in decimal format (e.g., 0.5, 1.0). This will include all ARS Category 1 or 4 assigned to the project and possibly non-ARS scientists. Any non-ARS scientist must function in a role equivalent to an ARS Category 1 or 4 scientist. Identify the Lead Scientist.All scientists not employed by ARS need to be identified as 'non-ARS' scientists. The investigator list should reflect what is proposed for the new project, and need not match the SY listing of the current project in ARIS. Everyone on the list must have an accomplishments section in the back of the plan.
Scientific Staff Years
- List as a decimal, i.e., 2.75. (Does not include scientists not employed by the ARS. However to determine the page limit, calculate an equivalent scientific year for non-ARS scientists.)
Planned Duration
- List in terms of total months, i.e., 60 months.

Signatures (not counted in page limit)- Insert the appropriate Signature Page. Different signature pages are required for Pre-Review, Post-Review and Re-Review of the project plans.  Please note the statements that accompany signatures which imply signatory responsibility for the content of the project plan.

Table of Contents (not counted in page limit)- Include the major headings in your plan, as suggested in this section. The order may be altered to suit the scope and size of your plan; and to enhance clarity.  Use of Automatic formatting is encouraged to eliminate problems when page numbering changes.

Project Summary (not counted in page limit)- Like the abstract of a paper this should summarize the project in about 250 words (10 to 12 sentences).   The text should aim at a general audience and provide a clear description of the overall goals, essential questions/knowledge gaps, general approach, and expected outcomes or benefits of the research. It is crucial that the reader gain a clear, but brief, knowledge of your project here to enable them to better understand the context for the greater detail provided later in the document.


Objectives- The objectives should be as in the PDRAM.  Accompanying this should be one to three paragraphs illustrating the linkages and general bases for this set of objectives to be part of this plan. This provides a framework for the objectives and a clear context that will guide the reviewer.   A figure to illustrate the relationships among objectives, overall goals or outcomes, and staff can be most valuable and is strongly encouraged ( Example of a Flow Chart). Such a figure or diagram can be useful in refining the prior Project Summary section.


Need for Research- This short section (1-2 pages) summarizes the nature of the problem to be addressed, its relevance to the National Program Action Plan, the anticipated products, the potential benefits, the customers/recipients of the research, and, where appropriate, their involvement.   Rather than detailing these as individual subsections, including the information in a single narrative will provide a clear picture while conserving pages. Build upon, rather than repeat, the project summary.


Scientific Background- Do not repeat information from the previous sections.   The "Scientific Background" section should focus on presenting the relevant (key) literature and identifying the gaps in knowledge the research addresses.   This is, primarily, a discussion of the gaps in knowledge that the research is intended to address.   The literature cited should be sufficient to allow reviewers to conclude the investigators have current knowledge and understanding of the field of study, not a comprehensive review. This should be no more than 1/3 of your allowed pages in length.  


Results of past projects or other preliminary results of the investigators relevant to the current project plan may also be presented.    If applicable, try to show how your project relates to other ongoing research within and outside ARS.  It is not necessary to cite every ARS Research Project: only those relevant.   Some of these projects might be discussed under collaborations in the Approach and Procedures section.   It is important that peer reviewers see that investigators are aware of others performing similar research.


Related Research- This very important section shows the relationship of the research to other efforts within and outside USDA. Do not repeat detail that may be in the prior section. This includes the CRIS search. If not included in the scientific background you may make this a separate section. The purpose is to show linkages and relation to other, related and similar, work. This is particularly important where there are related or analogous ARS projects. As well, if there are significant efforts outside of ARS, demonstrating your knowledge and/or cooperation with them can be important to note here or elsewhere (For example, as a collaborator in the Approach and Procedures section). See CRIS Search for information on doing a search for related USDA research.


Approach and Research Procedures- For each objective, elaborate on the following:

Experimental Design - Describe in appropriate detail the experimental design and the related procedures.   State, if applicable, the question ( hypothesis) that will be tested and how experimental results will be evaluated.    Detail should be sufficient to inform the reviewer of the nature and appropriateness of the planned experiments and the competence of the project team.

Contingencies - Discuss specific approaches and experimental options that will be undertaken if the research plan proceeds faster or slower than anticipated, or if early plans prove impractical or unsuccessful.   (See Box: Contingencies).


In a memo to Area researchers on developing a project plan Dr. Steve Shafer, former Midwest Area Director, gave the following useful guidance about contingencies.


This is a frequently misunderstood section, and frankly, I think it has evolved since we started doing these project plans...This is definitely not a place to describe work you would do if you get new funding, either appropriated or grants.  This project plan should describe what you will do over the next five years with the specific funds currently appropriated by Congress for the work.  Contingencies should describe what will drive your choices of direction as you get results.  Another way to think about this might be: What would make us decide to modify our [objectives or] sub-objectives?


A very good approach to Contingencies is to link the section explicitlywith Milestones that you specify in the Milestone table that comes later in the Plan...If you create good Milestones that serve as decision points along the way, then Contingencies are the decisions that come as a result of achieving those Milestones.  For example, a good milestone may be completion of a particular experiment that provides important data in the general progress of the plan.  You may not know exactly how that experiment is going to turn out (that's why they call it "research", right?), but getting those data is a key event.  Once you have that data set, you know whether to choose one course of action and sequence of next experiments, or some other course of action.  Approached this way, contingencies are the options you will choose among when a milestone is achieved. This is a very effective way to address both Milestones and Contingencies and shows the reviewers additional depth to your thinking. 


To this we would add that Contingencies may also be options you might consider should work proceed differently (faster or slower) than you expect. They are not what you would do should a hurricane destroy your laboratory (although we all know that can happen!).


Collaborations- Describe collaborations with other scientists to accomplish portions of this research.   These should include collaborations with scientists within and outside ARS.   Collaborations should be documented by a letter from the scientist that specifically details the collaboration, how they will contribute to the project, and the level of commitment anticipated.    A letter assures reviewers that the collaboration is in place.

Physical and Human Resources(not counted in page limit) - Describe the major physical resources (i.e., facilities, major instrumentation and equipment, etc.) that are available to accomplish the research.   Show the number (FTE) of project personnel (e.g., post-docs, technicians, graduate students) available for this project. While these may not be listed elsewhere this is important for demonstrating that there are sufficient persons to accomplish the proposed work.


Vacancies in the research team should be addressed in this section with a discussion of the anticipated expertise and discipline and the expected contributions of this person to the project.


Project Management and Evaluation (not counted in page limit)- It is particularly important for projects with several researchers to describe the overall management and evaluation plan.   This section provides a basis for demonstrating how the project team functions and makes decisions.


Milestones Table- (not counted in page limit) Insert a Milestone table(using this format: page orientation: portrait; font: 9 pt Arial Narrow). This illustrates intended progress through the project plan. Reviewers look here to understand the path of the project. Milestones are points where significant accomplishments can be documented. (See Box: What is a Milestone?)   These are identified for each objective or subobjective and hypothesis.   The table also describes how progress will be documented through products (e.g., scientific papers, databases, germplasm releases, technology transfer, CRADAs).   


Definition of a Milestone

Milestone Table Example

Accomplishments from Prior Project Period(not counted in page limit) - This section summarizes the research accomplishments from research by this team, relevant to this project plan, and which has terminated within the last 2 years. The purpose of this section is to provide the reviewers greater detail on prior work (which may have been briefly described in the background). The following information should be included:   

Terminating project number, title, and project period; Investigators; and Project accomplishments and impact; including: Summary of the most significant accomplishments and their related impact, including publications; and Description of how the objectives and accomplishments relate to the current plan.

Literature Cited(not counted in page limit)   -Begin this section on a new page.   Literature can be listed alphabetically by author or in order of citation in the text.   If papers are cited by author and year, they must be listed alphabetically here.   Any citation format accepted by a peer-reviewed scientific journal that includes all authors, article title, and complete page numbers may be used.

Past Accomplishments of Investigator(s) (not counted in page limit) - Begin each investigator's past accomplishments on a new page.   In one single-spaced page or less for each, provide education and work experience, and describe accomplishments of the investigator(s) of this project over the past 10 years that are significant and pertinent to the proposed research.   Follow this with a list of not more than 20 of their major publications.   These should be formatted as in your Literature Cited.

Issues of Concern Statement (not counted in page limit) - Address these, as appropriate to the plan.   For those issues that are not applicable, list the title and note as "not applicable."    Where appropriate, identify the necessary reviews and/or permits, and give status and ID number or note that such have been requested.

Animal Care

Endangered Species

National Environmental Policy Act: Research teams should consult their Area Environmental Specialist regarding the potential environmental impact of their research. ARS research projects are typically considered Categorically Excluded under the National Environmental Policy Act regulations.   Project plans could then include the following statement: "On the basis that this Federal project is undertaken for the sole purpose of conducting research, this project is categorically excluded, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)."

Human Study Procedure: Where appropriate (as, for example, plans in the Human Nutrition National Program) should document their compliance with regulations and policies regarding the use of human subjects.

Laboratory Hazards

Occupational Safety and Health

Recombinant DNA Procedures: The IBC license number must be included in the project plan if there is work with recombinant DNA.

Homeland Security: See the following web sites:

Intellectual Property Issues (see details in Appendix 8)

Existing Specific Cooperative Agreements (SCAs) (not counted in page limit) - An SCA related to the proposed Project Plan should be described in the Approach and Procedures section under the appropriate objective.   The collaboration associated with the SCA should be documented either by a letter or an appended copy of the SCA.   


Appendices (not counted in page limit) - On a new page, list appendices by page number.   Letters of collaboration are to be included in the appendix.   Include scans of collaborator letters at the end of the project plan appendices.