Changes in NSF process for submissions to DEB and IOS*

As some of you may have heard, the BIO directorate at NSF has implemented some sweeping changes to the proposal process. Some of you youngsters may be unaware what the ‘old’ system was, but it involved two submission deadlines per year. At these deadlines, scientists would submit to a panel** one or more full proposals*** which were then reviewed by external reviewers and deliberated on by the panel the proposal was submitted to. Starting in January, this is changing. Some of the important highlights include:

1) Preproposals: we will now need to submit a preproposal before we can submit a full proposal. Preproposals will be 5 pages, 4 of which are for the science/broader impacts. These preproposals will be considered by a panel and full proposals will be solicited for a subset of those preproposals. No full proposals can be submitted unless solicited by NSF****.

2) fewer full proposal deadlines:  The early year proposal deadline has been converted to a preproposal deadline so there is now a deadline for preproposals (January) and one later in the year for the solicited full proposals (August).

3) limits on submissions: the NSF info says, “In a given year, an individual may participate as a PI, co-PI, or lead senior investigator of a subaward on no more than two preliminary proposals submitted per Division solicitation (DEB or IOS).” I suspect from the wording that it is 2 total – regardless of how many different panels you want to submit to. Does anyone have more info on this?

NSF has highlighted the following as part of their motivation:

1) focus on transformative science. In their FAQ, NSF specifically highlights that they expect that the Preproposals panel will focus on how interesting and important the research is since obviously preproposal methods will be limited.

2) higher funding rate for full proposals. Also in the FAQ, NSF is aiming at a 25-35% funding rate for full proposals. For the youngsters, funding rates at least for the panel I tend to submit to have been in the range of 8-10%, so this will be a substantial improvement. However, this means that the rejection rates for the preproposals will be high.

The next year or two as we transition to the new process are going to be rocky. Some of my colleagues think these changes are akin to the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse running across the scientific landscape.  I think there are some critical issues with respect to currently untenured faculty, and funding gaps for projects that were planning on having 2 submissions before funding runs out. But, assuming that we are able to get feedback on rejected full proposals in time to write revised preproposals for the next round, I’m actually cautiously optimistic that there will eventually be some benefits to this system. I’ve read some of the concerns on other blogs and I would recommend that our readers go check them out. One of the reasons I am cautiously optimistic is that the old system was broken and some of those concerns were unofficially being built into the old system anyway*****. The truth is that our funding world has changed and we all (NSF, scientists, and university tenure committees) need to figure out how to make our current reality work. NSF is trying to adjust, scientists are being forced to adjust, and I think those of us with tenure need to make sure our universities are also adjusting so that the young people coming up through the new reality don’t get screwed****** because the system has changed on them and we haven’t adjusted our expectations*******.


* DEB (Division of Environmental Biology) and IOS (Division of Integrated Organismal Systems) are divisions at NSF and cover pretty much everything from organismal physiology to ecosystem ecology. Incidentally, MCB (Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences) is/has also adopted the new system.

**Panel, n. 1) a program (in the generic sense, not the computer sense) to which unsolicited proposals on a certain research area (e.g., Population and Community Ecology, Ecosystems, etc) could be submitted twice a year. 2) a group of scientists invited to NSF to provide funding recommendations on proposals submitted to that panel.

***Full proposal: This involves a 1 page Project Summary, 15 page Project Description, Budget and Budget Justification, 2-page CV for each PI and co-PI, Lists of current and pending funding for each PI and co-PI, Data Management Plan, Cited Literature, and Postdoc mentoring plan (if you are going to fund a postdoc).

**** There are exceptions to this: CAREER, OPUS, RCN, LTER (i.e., pretty much anything with its own acronym except LTREB).

***** For example, proposals were being held by NSF until after the next deadline unless you specifically bugged your program director for it and then sometimes is was released with very little time before the deadline. I suspect it was only a matter of time before they refused to release them at all before the next deadline. The fact that it’s a deadline (i.e., late submissions rejected) and not a target date (i.e., acceptance or rejection of late submissions at the discretion of the program director) was also a relative recent change and indicative of where things were heading.

****** New system or old system, the fact is that 8% (or whatever the new number will be – though it’s hard to imagine it’ll be a LOT better) is horrid and frankly a lack of successful NSF funding is NOT indicative of quality or long-term prospects when percentages are that low. We need to make sure that productive people who have not landed the ‘gold standard’ grant are not being flushed out of the system.

******* This one’s just because I find the long string of astrixes (astrices?) funny.

14 Comments on “Changes in NSF process for submissions to DEB and IOS*

  1. Thanks for all the insight into NSF’s inner workings! I hope the pre-proposal process is a step in the right direction, but done the line I am personally concerned about only having 5 shots at a grant before going up for tenure.

  2. I won’t say I’m not worried for my current and future untenured colleagues!! 10 shots (2 preproposals per year) when funding rates are so low is a little scary. Part of how this shakes out depends on whether universities adjust tenure expectations accordingly. In some disciplines money=papers (i.e., without money you can’t produce papers) so if a young faculty can’t land a grant they may not be able to produce enough papers to go through tenure. But for other fields, this isn’t necessarily the case. With funding rates so low, I think we (and by ‘we’ I really mean people making tenure decisions) need to be careful to focus on the productivity and not the $$. Some universities may be well off enough to flush people out if they don’t get a big NSF grant, even if they’re productive otherwise. However I think many can’t afford all the start-up money for continually replacing all the young faculty that an 8% funding rate would require if we keep to the ‘grant is necessary for tenure’ attitude! But I’ve been wrong before….

  3. I’ll ask the same question I’ve asked before: at what point does the Canadian system start to look good to US academics?



    See also the comment thread on the latter post for some recent comments from a US investigator who claims not only that stringent competition in the NSF makes that system unambiguously superior to the Canadian system, but also that the NSF system has never failed to fund a “high quality” investigator, and that Canada is a refuge for academics who weren’t good enough to hack it in the US. America, love it or leave it!

  4. Pingback: Changes to NSF submission process: another reason to move to Canada? « Oikos Blog

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  7. I am answering as a current rotating program officer in IOS….The proposal limit is quite literally 2 per solicitation so since DEB and IOS each have their own solicitation that means you have a total limit of 4 not 2. But it is to the solicitation so it does not matter how many panels within the division you submit to- you could submit two to the same panel within either IOS or DEB or one to each of two different panels. You could, if appropriate, put in 2 preliminary proposals to each division at 4 different panels. MCB (another division) has its own solicitation too which does not involve preliminary proposals so if appropriate someone could also have a full proposal there. CAREERs are separate as are RCNs. LTREBs also have a new solicitation of their own. Hope that helps…

  8. Thanks Michelle! That definitely makes it easy to understand how the limits work.

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