NSF Proposal Changes – Follow-up

Recently, NSF has changed the process for proposal submission for the core panels in the Directorate for Biological Sciences. Wondering if this might be important to you? Please answer the following questions:

  • do you study some aspect of biology (defined as anything from the molecular to ecosystem levels)?,
  • do you intend to submit a proposal to NSF someday?
  •  If you answered yes to these questions, then the probability is high that this pertains to you (though the details of what I say below may differ depending upon the Division you tend to apply to).

Anyway, we’ve covered the basics of this shift here before, but this week the DEB (Division of Environmental Biology) at NSF conducted a webinar on the changes and a few additional pieces of info were added.

Some important additional pieces of info

1)The following solicitations are NOT impacted by the preproposal rules:

Assembling the Tree of Life, CAREER, Dynamics of Coupled Nautral and Human Systems, Dimensions of Biodiversity, Ecology of Infectious Disease, OPUS, RCN, and the DDIGs.

What does that mean? 1) Those solicitations are operating under their own rules, so read their solicitations for details of how to submit and 2) submitting to them won’t count against your 2 preproposals per year limit.

2) Timeline (for DEB, supposedly IOS – Integrative Organismal Systems – will be similar):

Preproposals: due Jan 9, Preproposal review panel meetings March-April, Invite/Not invite decision by May 1(ish).

Full proposals (for those invited): Due Aug 2, Panel Review Oct/Nov, Award/Decline decision by December. In theory this will give you close to a month to revise your preproposal.

3) The webinar provides info on what should be in a preproposal, what the panel will be asked to assess, and what the basis for invite/not invite will be. I recommend perusing through the last few slides (see links below). There is a lot of emphasis (in my opinion) on how bold, compelling, general the research will be. If this is how the panels will be instructed, I think this is a good thing – but again that’s just my opinion.

4) There is also info on trends in funding rates, proposal submissions, and numbers of reviewers that were being required for all the proposals. If you’ve been submitting to NSF you know things have been grim, but there’s something about seeing the numbers that make you realize that regardless of whether you think this is the best change, things really had to change.

If you’d like to see the webinar here are some links for you (I tried the ‘streaming’ one and it worked fine, there is an executable that will be downloaded to your computer to run it)

Streaming recording link: https://mmancusa.webex.com/mmancusa/ldr.php?AT=pb&SP=MC&rID=43949312&rKey=2ad726bf2f77bd13

Download recording link: https://mmancusa.webex.com/mmancusa/lsr.php?AT=dw&SP=MC&rID=43949312&rKey=1fe4937906efe109

10 Comments on “NSF Proposal Changes – Follow-up

  1. Thanks for following this topic of keen interest to all of us!

    What I got out of the session is the whole thing is about reducing the reviewer load and might incidentally reduce some of the load on researchers for doing long-form grants(15pages+budget+miscellania). The # and size of awards stay the same which means the overall odds of ~10% stay the same (assuming NSF doesn’t get axed in the budget battles). So if current 2000 proposals yielding 200 awards turns into 2000 preproposals turning into circa 600 full proposals (they did say 1/3-1/2 of full proposals funded) that means 1/3 chance of going to full proposal and 1/3 chance of being funded if full proposal, multiplying out to the same ~1/3×1/3=1/9 or ~1/10 funded. All its done is save 1400 researchers and 2800 reviewers 10 pages of writing/reading. And in practice I bet the # of preproposals will go up, possibly drastically since the # of chances are more limited and the bar for entry is lower. Am I missing something?

    I’m all for the idea of rewarding more risky proposals, but I didn’t hear anything that made me think we’re headed for big changes. They said the diagram they showed on this topic o encourage risking high reward proposals is already in use today. I’m definitely in the I’ll believe it when I see it on this aspect.

    Based on all of this I would have to predict that 5 years from now we’ll all be saying neither better nor worse than today.

  2. Hi Brian! Thanks for commenting. I was hoping that someone else who watched it would pop up!

    I think that the limit of 2 preproposals per year (proposals as PI OR co-PI OR subcontract PI all count towards that number, so no putting in 2 lead PIs, 2 coPI and 2 subcontracts) will keep the number of preproposals from increasing. They also said that 90% or so of people only submitted 1-2 proposals, so most people will not be impacted in their submission numbers. And I agree, their motivation is to control the review load not ito increase funding rates. I think it is clear that this is not going to increase overall funding rates – only increased budgets will really do that (or sharp limits reducing the money allocated per funded grant). The truth is that regardless of how you split it, it’s a zero-sum. NSF can only fund so many grants. Period.

    As for ‘all is done’ is saving time for 1400 researcher and 2800 reviewers – I’m not sure that’s a positive that should be dismissed so quickly. Assuming we don’t all take that saved time and go play MarioKart, that’s time we can spend writing papers, mentoring our students, reviewing for journals, or even thinking. Having done the 2+ proposals per year rat race, I definitely see this as a positive for me.

    Will the preproposal panel impact the success of risky proposals? I honestly don’t know. I worry that the answer is no. But having been on one of these panels I think the instructions coming from the Program Directors are really influential in shaping the discussion. When they ask you point blank would you be comfortable having this proposal funded as is, it makes you stop and think. I think it would have the same impact if they were asking you point blank ‘how important to science is this research?” But then, maybe that’s just me. I think having a panel focused more on the idea might lead to some interesting psychology differences between the preproposal and full proposal panels. I hope they take data on this, because it’ll be an interesting experiment.

    In the end, though, I agree with you. I suspect that the transition might be rough, but that in the long-run this is not going to be either cataclysmic or a magic bullet. I think this is a bigger deal psychologically than it will turn out to be in actuality. But I have been so very wrong before!

  3. I just wanted to add that the Macrosystems solicitation is NOT affected by these changes.

  4. And that the 2 preproposal limit applies only to the directorates making these changes. Straight from an NSF PO’s mouth.

  5. Thanks for covering this. It is interesting to watch from across the border, I’m curious to see how it turns out. I’ve been following this and I am a little perplexed by their language. They want to fund ‘transformational’ science, but who then funds basic science. Here in Canada, the language is about funding basic science, and there are additional awards and big funding schemes for the ‘transformational’ stuff.

  6. Hi Marc–

    I’m not exactly sure how to respond. I think you’d need a NSF program director to get a definitive answer to that. I think it depends on the definition of ‘basic’, i.e., basic vs. applied is different from basic vs. advanced. NSF funds basic science (i.e., not applied) but I think it is trying to use transformational to highlight ‘advanced’ research on concepts from more ‘basic’ (or ‘simplistic’ or ‘incremental’ science).

    If we happen to have a reader out there with more experience with NSF’s motivations please feel free to comment!!

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