Random final NSF panel thoughts

I know I have been harping on this topic too much recently and those of you who are either not in science or not NSF people are probably ready to write me off. There were a few topics from my trip to NSF, however, that I would like to address and haven't gotten to, then I'll shut up about this and move on.

- One of the major issues that NSF is trying to tackle right now is finding ways to lighten the reviewer load. They have a hard time getting enough ad hoc reviewers in some cases to make the review process go the way it was meant to. There are several ways to deal with this, including shortening the proposals (10-12 pages from the current 15) or doing pre-proposals. I don't think I would have any problem with a shorter proposal (NIH is down to 12 pages), but pre-proposals are a horrible idea, IMO. In any case, there was strong sentiment in our panel that A) ad hoc reviews are important, especially if no experts in a particular field are on the panel, and B) going to either an all panel (no ad hocs) or all mail in (no panel) system would not be nearly as effective.

I guess there is a lot of pushback from the community about 'reviewer burn out', but I have to kinda call bullshit on this one. Everytime a person sends in a manuscript or proposal, they expect roughly three reviews back. Shouldn't that mean you should expect to review roughly three proposals or papers for every one you submit? Seems only fair, no? How many people are reviewing significantly more (on average) than that?

- Another thing that came up, of course, was budgets and so frustration over the small percentage of proposals that would be funded. One panelist asked why NSF didn't cap the overhead rate so that the money saved could go into the science, rather than the black box of overhead. I know that NSF does not control O/H rates, but another interesting point was raised. If NSF caps overhead, how will that effect hiring at schools that depend on the current O/H rates? Say NSF caps O/H at 30%, wouldn't there be a strong preference for hiring scientists with NIH potential over anyone who would be funded by NSF?

I hadn't really thought about it that way before, so I found this point really interesting. Beyond just creating a 'gradient of significance' within departments and colleges that would pit the NSF-funded against the NIH-funded scientists, it could wipe out NSF from science from many R1 institutions in a generation or two. So yeah, bad idea.

- Be careful what you call 'transformative' these days. Why? Because NSF is starting to track proposals that have had this label applied to them in review to see what happens with them and whether they end up being a big deal. There has been some focus on the idea of seeking out these transformative proposals and now NSF wants to see whether it has been worth it. It will be interesting to hear what the results are.

17 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    1) dood, people LOVE reading all this grant geekyre! Keep it coming!!!

    2) re: transformative apps- I predict no significant difference over the population of apps not identifid as "transformative". I also predict that knowledge will be quietly buried.

  • HennaHonu says:

    I'd like to de-lurk to tell you how helpful this series of posts have been. As a future NSF-proposal writer, I have really appreciated all of your insights into the system.

  • Pharm Sci Grad says:

    As a future grant writer in general, I'm all for the insider info about any federal funding mechanism! I'm currently supported by NIH grant money, but hey, money is money, I'm not snobbish. 🙂

  • yellowfish says:

    As someone who put in my first NSF and NIH grants this year, I've spent a lot of time reading about grants- there is a good amount of info on the NIH review process in the blogosphere (I spent a lot of that reading time obsessively dredging DrugMonkey's archives), but there aren't a lot of people writing about NSF reviews- so, I've been reading these with a lot of interest, don't stop posting them!

  • Odyssey says:

    What all the above said. Don't stop posting on all things NSF on a regular basis. There are a lot of people out there applying to the NSF (there is science other than biomedicine...) - they would certainly benefit. Of course I do understand you're probably just talking about no more posts on your recent panel experience, not necessarily all NSF-related posts...

    By the way, the discussions your panel had re ad hocs and overhead are eerily similar to the ones we had on my panel. We vehemently opposed doing away with ad hocs for the same reasons. Overhead is of course out of NSF' hands.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Yes, I'm mostly talking about posts related to the panel I was on. I have no intention of stopping blogging about NSF, since I deal with them so much. I'll be happy to blog even more about them if they would agree to send me some effing money, but that's another story.

    I would guess that NSF has some issues they are bringing up in all the panels this year, looking for feedback. I'm not surprised that they are getting similar feedback across the board, which is good.

  • John Hawks says:

    I also want to thank you for writing up your experiences on the panel. This is so useful for people who have not been in the situation, or may not understand much about how funding works, and well worth even more coverage!

  • babakubwa says:

    If we're wishing whimsically that NSF would cap O/H at 30%, then wouldn't we add in that NIH does so as well? Then there are none of the NSF vs NIH dynamics within universities that you raise as a potential concern.

    Is it that farfetched to suggest that the government declares a limit on what universities can charge for O/H for all federal funds, or is that too government-meddly and socailisty?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    The government already does this. They negotiate with every institution on what is the max that institution can charge. Guess what? Every institution charges the max they are allowed to.

  • It seems like a real problem that every university is a special and unique snowflake with its own negotiated indirect rate. This becomes particularly annoying when the rate is re-negotiated mid-grant and the increase is "stolen" from what you thought were your research funds. I don't see a good reason why not to have a universal indirect rate for all government grants. There is an argument that public vs private universities should get different amounts of money, but is the public funding really supposed to go toward research or education? I'm not sure.

  • "there is science other than biomedicine…"


  • pyrope says:

    Don't national labs have overhead rates over 100%? I seem to recall some NASA scientist telling me that their overhead rates were close to 200%. Many of those scientists are funded from the same NSF/NASA/NIH programs we at the universities are. If the funding agencies really want to reduce overhead costs, they should probably look to the federal bureaucracies in their own back yard. My U's 60% seems pretty good in comparison.

  • El Picador says:

    And, of course, the NIH and NSF should stop wasting their money on people in professorial appointments that actually have to teach. We all know how much *that* drains the mental effort available to the PI. Let's limit grant funding only to those who are thinking full time about the science (we can maybe allow for the occasional lecture in a group-taught grad seminar class, just for form's sake)

  • anon says:

    "Be careful what you call ‘transformative’ these days. Why? Because NSF is starting to track proposals that have had this label applied to them in review to see what happens with them and whether they end up being a big deal."

    What's the measuring stick for being "a big deal"?? Publication in a glamour mag? News item for a minute? I think in some cases, it may be hard to tell if something is or has been transformative in the short term. Impact can take a long time.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I don't actually have any idea what the criteria for measuring this are, but I got the impression that this was a long term objective so that the impact would be evaluated in more than a 5 year scale.

  • [...] quick to pop up, as always. For those of you who are bored, we've discussed those issues here and here, [...]

  • [...] to say it's not a good solution without overhead reform, another re-occurring topic. Unfortunately, NSF's hands are tied on that front as well unless NIH wants to play along. So what to [...]

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