What can I say? I love stupid puns. You know, panels fund research, feed people... Plus there is actually a Panera Bread in the food court across the street from the NSF.
Anyhow, I was recently on a panel at an NSF directorate to which I don't usually submit proposals, but which is close to my expertise. It was an interesting experience.
There is a marked difference in the funding rate (it's about twice that of My Division). That made all the difference in the tone of discussion. At the Other Division panel, we were actually able to fund all the ones that were considered not to have major flaws. In contrast, at the last panel in My Division, the fight was very vicious about getting to pick N, instead of N+1, for final funding.
It is natural to consider a PI's track record, and it is human to be a bit star-struck when reading a proposal by a BigShot. But, in My Division, if a person is extremely well-funded, that generally reduces their priority for funding. Not so much in Other Division -- we ended up funding a person with 10+ massive active grants. I must say that if leaves a bad taste in my mouth to give the precious and scarce NSF resources to someone who commands such immense funds already. Some people were saying "Well, track record!" Of course the PI has a massive track record, they have a veritable army at their disposal! Why don't we just forgo panels, take the money and distribute it to the top 5 schools, because "track record!" and be done with it. I am sure those guys would find some use for it.
There is a significant difference in the proposal layout. Prior NSF support, a necessary ingredient of every proposal, is just a pro forma blurb on panels in My Division, and is usually in the back of the proposal. In contrast, there are several pages of detailed description of prior work near the beginning of every proposal in Other Division (even if the proposal didn't really rely on prior NSF work). This was an interesting and unexpected aspect.
Another difference is the broader impact. In My Division, questions always arise why there isn't something specific to the actual proposal that the PI will do for broader impact, something new. It is not considered sufficient to just keep doing what you are already doing. In Other Division, when I brought this up, I was quickly told that it was not fair to ask people to do more when they are already doing enough. Overall, the broader impacts in My Division are considerably more detailed and I would say stronger than in Other Division.
One thing I liked at the Other Division panel is that the panel seemed more likely to give a chance to an irreverent, exciting topic, even if the proposal was not perfectly written. In contrast, I cannot say that I have seen a proposal get funded in My Division that wasn't very well-written.
Apart from the differences above, the panels functioned in pretty much the same way, with the panel going over the proposals and a rough ranking on the first day, and the second day devoted to the final ranking and the clean-up of the panel summary statements. People argued for and against proposals, it was lively and interesting. We were all exposed to a lot of very nice science. Overall, serving on the panel at Other Division was a nice experience that has opened my eyes to some on the unexpected differences between divisions.
So get in touch with your program director (the one to whose program you think you will be submitting proposals), get to know him/her, and try to get invited to serve on his/her panel. That is the best way to learn how to write proposals that said program will fund.
Note: I will be on blogging hiatus in the next several weeks, because I have an overwhelming amount of work. I will try to repost old stuff about twice a week during this period.