All environmental research begins with a proposal. The purpose of the proposal is to identify a research question and describe how that question will be answered. Once the initial question is identified, the rest of the components of the proposal can evolve. The typical order of a proposal's content sections is the abstract, introduction, methods, expected results or impacts of the research, and references.
The question is the basis of all research and a good proposal cannot be effectively written without a clear and concise question. Without a clear question, it is difficult to develop a solid research plan, reasonable timeline or achievable goals and outcomes. Further, there must justification for the research, such as expanding on recent findings or work, testing a new idea or research method, or evaluating the efficiency of different processes.
Abstract, Introduction and Methods
Once the research question has been established, the rest of the proposal can come together. The introduction is used to introduce the topic, discuss what is and is not known about the subject, and to present a hypothesis. This section stems from a literature review -- a lengthy investigation of the other research relevant to your question. Together, these can provide the rationale behind the proposed research and can illustrate why it is important for the work to be conducted. The methods explain how the question will be answered, and includes field work and equipment, laboratory instruments and the software that will be used. The abstract is a short summary of the proposal that goes at the beginning, usually just a few hundred words.
Expected Outcomes and Impacts
This section is to show the reviewers that you have some idea what to expect. It also is the place in the proposal to emphasize how the research fits into the greater context of the scientific community, what knowledge gaps the research fills, and how it can have impacts beyond just the scope of the research itself. The more applicable the research is, the more valuable it becomes.
References are required for all proposals and for any papers that are written from the research. Any place in the text where other research is mentioned or other ideas and facts are discussed, references are needed to avoid plagiarism and to give credit to the original authors. References usually go at the end of the proposal, and the style in which they are written will depend on where the proposal is being submitted.