An Earth Scientist’s Guide to NASA FINESST

11 minute read



If you’ve never heard of the NASA Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology (FINESST program), I would recommend you start with this great guide here. In brief, it’s a great potential source of funding for graduate students in a broad range of fields, including (surprisingly!) biology. This post is tailored for non-rocket scientists (get it?), e.g. biologists and ecologists.

The FINESST program is comparable to the NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) in that it funds 3 years of graduate school with an associated value of 50k per year. The selection rate of both programs (~15%) are also very similar.

Just looking at these numbers, one might think that the GRFP and FINESST should get the same amount of attention, since the expected value of applying to either program is roughly equivalent. Despite this, the GRFP is much better known among graduate students and their advisors and has become (in my sphere at least) a rite of passage among incoming and first-year graduate students. Meanwhile, no one knows wtf FINESST is.

A really impressive informal information network has been built around the GRFP that gives advice and provides a bunch of examples of submitted proposals. These are invaluable resources that go beyond what a single mentor or even institution could offer.

Probably because of the relative newness of the program, and the more limited number of awards, a potential applicant to FINESST does not have this luxury. Instead, advice and examples are harder to come by. It doesn’t help that the FINESST program got a new name (previously NESSF) a few years ago.

The purpose of this post is to start to fill that gap by a) explaining the scope of research covered by this grant, with the specific goal of helping biologists see that their research may fall under NASA’s funding umbrella, b) explaining the structure of the proposal, and how it differs from the GRFP, and c) giving a few strategic tips from my anecdotal experience. I also provide my own proposal, and a bunch of links that may be helpful.

Side note: If you are interested in sharing your Earth Science proposal, accepted or otherwise, please shoot me an email!

Why you (an “Earth Scientist”) should consider applying for the FINESST program.

The purpose of writing this is, first and foremost, to provide an example of the scope of research that can be funded under the FINESST program. When I was first approached by my advisor to consider applying, I did not think that any research I was doing – or that I was even interested in doing – would be fundable by NASA. Of course, I had a pretty narrow view of what NASA did (rockets, astronauts, etc.) and therefore a narrow idea of what they would be interested in funding (rockets, astronauts, etc.).

Little did I know, NASA is actually pretty interested in a lot of Earth stuff too! As it applies to this grant, many of NASA’s goals overlap with the more traditional big-picture goals of ecological research.

If your research goals align with NASA’s, you should consider applying to FINESST! Below is an overview of NASA goals that your research may address.

NASA’s first listed goal in its 2022 Strategic Plan – the overarching scope of all NASA plans – is to “Understand the Earth system and its climate.” Reading through the Strategic Plan gives the sense that NASA is particularly interested in using their satellites and other tools to understand changes and risks due to climate change.

In the solicitation for the FINESST program, the Earth Science Program (which falls under the scope of the first Strategic Plan goal) sponsors:

“research activities that address the Earth system and seek to characterize its properties on a broad range of spatial and temporal scales, to understand the naturally occurring and human-induced processes that drive the Earth system, and to improve our capability for predicting its future evolution”

Conveniently, that’s pretty broad! For biologists/ecologists, a couple of specific goals of this program stand out:

“Detect and predict changes in Earth’s ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles, including land cover, biodiversity, and the global carbon cycle”

“Further the use of Earth system science research to inform decisions and provide benefits to society”

Nested within the Earth Science Program, the “Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems Focus Area” is likely the most relevant area for ecologists with questions like:

“How are global ecosystems changing?”

“How do ecosystems, land cover and biogeochemical cycles respond to and affect global environmental change?”

“What are the consequences of land cover and land use change for human societies and the sustainability of ecosystems?”

Point being, the goals of NASA are both very broad, and very specific to common questions in biology/ecology. I think most graduate students in ecology and related fields could see their research fit into these objectives. If the above points don’t immediately stand out as related to what you do, I would encourage you to check out both the solicitation and the Strategic Plan. There’s a lot more in there.

Important! Using NASA data:

So your research questions fall under NASA’s umbrella – great! But another major part of this proposal is showing that you are going to use NASA data to do your research. For ecologists, this likely means using satellite remote sensing data. This could include weather/climate stuff, fires, land cover, ocean stuff (excuse my ignorance), and much more. The specific instructions in the solicitation is:

“FINESST Earth science proposals must demonstrate a clear link to past, present, or future NASA Earth science data and/or models in the Science/Technical/Management section of their proposal. This link could include, but is not limited to: NASA satellite remote sensing data (including joint missions of NASA and its interagency and F.5-3 international partners), remote sensing data that pertains to future NASA observing systems, remote sensing and in-situ data from NASA or NASA-affiliated suborbital activities such as airborne campaigns and surface-based networks, data acquired via NASA’s Commercial SmallSat Data Acquisition (CSDA) Program (which is available at no cost to NASA-funded researchers), NASA models that incorporate satellite and/or suborbital data, and technology projects related to current and future NASA observing systems.”

I think the prospect of using satellite data may scare some people, specifically by giving the false impression that projects need to be done at a macro scale. I don’t think that is true – NASA data can be very high resolution, and therefore analyses done at smaller spatial scales are totally within the realm of possibility (and potentially more unique!).

Structure of Research Proposal

The structure research proposal or, in NASA-speak, the “Science/Technical/Management Section” is a 6 page maximum (not including references) outline of the proposed research. The three elements are:

A well-defined problem with a justification of its scientific significance and a detailed approach for its resolution. A statement describing the relevance of the proposed work to the appropriate SMD Division and a program within that division. If the research is relevant to more than one division/program, please identify the other division(s). A description of the approach to be taken to address the chosen problem. A period of performance for the proposed project describing anticipated accomplishments and major milestones, including planned publications. In cases when the PI already has an ongoing research award from NASA, the research proposed under FINESST may address a similar topic, but the proposal should make clear how the proposed research goes beyond what NASA has already funded or selected for funding.

This can be simplified to: 1) Explain your proposed research and its significance, 2) Talk about how your project fits into NASA’s strategic goals (some examples listed above), and 3) Make a timeline. In my case, I fit this into 4 sections: “Background”, “Proposed Work”, “Alignment with NASA Objectives” and “Proposed Timeline”. This is just one example of how to structure things, but I think it would work well if someone were to adapt their GRFP proposal (research statement + broader impacts).


I was lucky enough to have my proposal accepted, but that certainly does not mean that my advice should carry outsized weight here. It also doesn’t mean that my proposal is a perfect example to be emulated. But, I think advice can be valuable even if it’s anecdotal, so that’s why I’m sharing mine here. I would also strongly recommend seeking out the advice of other people that have applied for FINESST. This advice is a mixture of my own experience, plus the advice of a previous award winner who was kind enough to help me write my proposal.

  1. Your research needs to have NASA data at its core. This is the agency funding the work, and so I expect they want to see that you are putting their data and assets front and center. I think research that uses NASA data only for a portion of analysis is likely to look a lot less fundable.

  2. Make it clear what NASA data you are using. Just stick a table in there at the end and call it good.

  3. Link to multiple specific NASA objectives in the text. Cite the specific goals and questions in the Strategic Plan, Earth Sciences Program, and Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems Focus Area, or whatever areas apply to your research.

  4. Figures and conceptual diagrams can go a long way. This proposal can be a lot longer than the GRFP, and I would suggest committing some of that space to a conceptual diagram or figures that show early results/analyses. I imagine that a full-on straight-up all-text proposal is a major snore for people reading, plus you can show that you can make a plot!

A (Hopefully Comforting) Closing Note on Probabilities

In closing, I want to acknowledge that writing these proposals can feel really high stakes and stressful. Relatedly, the ~15% acceptance rate can be very discouraging. Applying and not getting these things can obviously feel really bad too and make you question the value of your research, etc.

As I’ve come to see it, the GRFP and the FINESST are both, to some degree, a crapshoot. Depending on how you look at it, this can be either discouraging or comforting. Personally, I think it’s comforting because *math* paints a more optimistic picture. If you are like me, and you applied (and were rejected) twice for the GRFP and once for FINESST, you have a 15% chance each time of getting funded, AND a ~40% chance of getting funded on at least 1 of those proposals. Apply twice to FINESST and that gets you to ~50%! Those are pretty reasonable odds!

Additionally, if you think of all those hours you are going to spend tirelessly working on each proposal as a lottery ticket, where the expected value of each hour is determined as:

\[(Total.Award.Amount * Perc.Selected) \over Hours.of.Work\]

Plugging in the FINESST numbers and 100 hours of grant prep work results in an expected value of $225 an hour! Where else are you going to make that kind of money!?

So, I hope this all proves motivating! If you have anything you would like me to add to this post, send me an email at btonelli (at) ucla [dot] edu.


NASA Strategic Plan: here

An Example Proposal: here