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.