The NSF Preproposal Process: Pt 2. A promising start.

When last we left our intrepid scientists, they were starting to ponder the changes that might result from the new pre-proposal process. In general, we really like the new system because it helps reviewers focus on the value of big picture thinking and potentially reduces the overall workload of both grant writing and grant reviewing. Of course academics are generally nervous about the major shift in the proposal process (and, let’s face it, change in general). Below we’ll talk about: 1) things we like about the new process; 2) concerns that we’ve heard expressed by colleagues and our thoughts on those issues; and 3) modifications to the system that we think are worth considering.

An emphasis on big picturing thinking.  As discussed in part 1, the 4-page proposal seems to shift the focus of the reader from the details of the project to the overall goals of the study. We are excited by this. The combined pre-proposal/full proposal process – with their different strengths and weaknesses – can potentially generate a strong synergy: the pre-proposal panel assesses which proposals could yield important enough results to warrant further scrutiny and the full-proposal panel assesses whether the research plan is sound enough to yield a reasonable chance of success. In the current reality of limited funding, it seems logical to increase the probability that funds go towards research that is both conceptually important and scientifically sound. Since many of us are more comfortable critiquing work based on specific methodological issues than on ‘general interest’ having a phase in the review that helps focus on the importance of the research seems valuable. However, if reviewers still focus primarily on methodological details (as seemed to be the case on Prof-like substance’s panel) then the new system could end up putting even less emphasis on big ideas, because the 4 pages will be entirely filled up with methods. Based on our experience this wasn’t a major concern, but it is definitely a possibility that NSF needs to be aware of.

Reduced reviewer workload: This was the primary motivation for the new system. We feel like we probably spent about as much time pre-panel reading and reviewing proposals, but we enjoyed it more because it involved more thinking about big questions and looking around in the literature and less slogging through 10 pages of methodological details. More importantly, there were no ad hoc reviewers for the pre-proposals, which greatly reduces the overall reviewer burden. The full-proposals will have ad hocs, but because there are fewer of them we should all end up getting fewer requests from NSF.

Reduced grant writer workload: One common concern about the new system is that people who write a successful pre-proposal will then have to also write a 15-page proposal, thus increasing the workload to 20 pages spread across two separate submissions (pre-proposal + proposal). Folks argue that this results in more time grant writing and less time doing science. Our perspective is that while not perfect, the new system is much better than the old system where many people we knew were putting in 1-2 (or even more) 15-page proposals per deadline (i.e., 2-4 proposals/year) with only a 5-10% funding rate (vs. 20-30% for full proposals under the new system). That’s a lot more wasted effort, especially when you consider that much of the prose from the pre-proposal will presumably be used in the full proposal. As grant writers we also really liked that we didn’t need to generate dozens of pages of time consuming supplemental documents (budgets, postdoc mentoring plans, etc.) until we knew there was at least a reasonable chance of the proposal being funded. The scientific community should definitely have a discussion about how to streamline the process further to optimize the ratio of effort in proposal writing and review to quality of science being funded, but the current system is definitely a step forward in our opinion. If you’re interested in some of the mechanisms for how the PI proposal writing workload could be modified – both Prof-Like Substance and Jack’s posts contain some interesting ideas.

New investigators: Everyone, everyone, everyone is concerned about the untenured people. Given the culture among universities that grants = tenure, untenured faculty don’t have the luxury of time, and the big concern is that only having 1 deadline/year gives untenured people fewer chances to get funding before tenure decisions. Since the number of proposals NSF is funding isn’t changing, this isn’t quite as bad as it seems. However, if it takes a new investigator a couple of rounds to make it past the prepoposal stage then they may not have very many tries to figure out how to write a successful full proposal. The counterarguments are that the once-yearly deadline gives investigators more time to refine ideas, digest feedback, obtain friendly reviews from colleagues and therefore (hopefully) submit stronger proposals as a result. It also (potentially) restricts the amount of time that untenured folks spend writing grants, therefore freeing up more time to focus on scholarly publications, mentoring students, and creating strong learning environments in our classrooms, which (theoretically) also are important for tenure. We love the ideas behind the counterarguments and if things really play out that way it would be to the betterment of science, but we do worry about how this ideal fares against the grants=tenure mentality.

Collaboration: One of our big concerns (and that of others as well ) is the potential impact of the 2 proposal limit on interdisciplinary collaboration. Much of science is now highly interdisciplinary and collaborative and if team size is limited because of proposal limits this will make both justifying and accomplishing major projects more difficult. We have already run into this problem both in having former co-PIs remove themselves from existing proposals and in having to turn down potential collaborations. We have no problem with a limit on the number of lead-PI proposals, in a lot of ways we think it will help improve the balance between proposing science and actually doing it, but the limit on collaboration is a major concern.

In general, we think that the new system is a definite improvement over the old system, but there are clearly still things to be discussed and fine tuned. Possible changes to consider include:

  • Find a way to allow full proposals that do well to skip the pre-proposal stage the next year. This will reduce stochasticity and frustration. These proposals could still count towards any limit on the number of proposals.
  • Clearly and repeatedly communicate to the pre-proposal panels (let’s face it, faculty don’t tend to listen very well) the desired difference in emphasis between evaluating preliminary proposals and full proposals. This will help maintain the emphasis on interesting ideas and might also help alleviate the angst some panelists felt about what to do about proposals that were missing important details but not obviously flawed.
  • Consider making the proposal limit on the number of proposals on which someone will be the lead PI. This still discourages excessive submissions without hurting the collaborative, interdisciplinary approach to science that we’ve all been working hard to foster.

So there it is. Our 2-part opinion piece on the new NSF-process. If you were hoping for a pre-proposal magic template, we’re sorry to disappoint, but hopefully you found a lot to think about here while you were looking for it!

UPDATE: If you were hoping for a pre-proposal magic template, checkout the nice post over at Sociobiology.

7 Comments on “The NSF Preproposal Process: Pt 2. A promising start.

  1. I should point out that my panel didn’t focus entirely on methodology, as alluded to above. My point was that there had to be sufficient detail to justify certain methodology – a type that many proposals included. The most successful proposals had a big idea that the panel was convinced the PI(s) could do.

  2. Pingback: Mixed reports on the NSF preproposal process | Sociobiology

  3. Hi PLS, thanks for coming by and clarifying! I’m glad your experience wasn’t as grim as I had interpreted from your post! I agree completely that a proposal was pretty much DOA without having a decent plan for how they would accomplish their goals. I think one of things we’re all still figuring out (both as writers and panelists) is how much methodology is needed to be convincing (and what convincing actually means!).

  4. The amount of methodology (and evidence of deployment) needed is going to depend heavily on track record with the methodology. As usual, senior PIs are going to get a break here unless they are proposing something out of their field. I am still of the opinion that this process is going to pressure the junior people disproportionately. I know NSF is watching this, but it’ll be a bit before conclusions can be drawn.

    I’m not whole-heartedly against the preproposals, but I am much more in favor of cutting the full proposal in half and going to the 8 month cycle MCB went to recently. Of course, they have announced they are going to preproposals, so it is possible the 8 month cycle wasn’t much better than the 6 month.

  5. I think that’s why active guidance (and pressure) from the program directors to the panels about how to judge methods in the preproposal is going to be critical. If the panel isn’t kept in check on this, I think it generates a methods writing Red Queen for everyone (junior or senior) that shifts the preproposals to a 3.75 page methods doc. Regardless, I think everyone should try to be cognizant of the young people right now. This is especially true for those of us with tenure when assistant profs are coming up for their promotion decisions in our departments!

    Interesting about MCB shifting to the preproposal. I hadn’t heard that. I would be curious to hear why they are shifting (i.e., whether the 8 month cycle didn’t work or if it was an attempt to make BIO consistent across Divisions.)

  6. So, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to have gleaned from the bottom two comments.

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