NSF, feasibility and impact

May 10 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

If you've been on an NSF panel recently, you may have seen a figure that had the same axis as the graph above. It's what POs are showing panelists as they consider the proposals on the table. I've added in my own details to reflect what I'm hearing from both POs and people coming out of the spring panels. The green oval represents proposals ranked as "Outstanding", the yellow "Superior" and the red "Meritorious".

At least in the 4 panels I have heard about in BIO, funding lines are coming in around 6-9%. The continuing resolution and 1% cut in the new Fed budget mean that things are tight and this is certainly no surprise. Knowing this was going to be a slim year, POs have been urging panels to wield I mighty hammer when it comes to putting proposals in the black in the above graph and 80% of proposals ending up "non-competitive" is not unusual this year, in stark contrast to previous years.

So what is getting the nod? Based on the graph above that panels are asked to consider, the implication should be pretty clear - ensure your methods are tight, have the preliminary data to cover your ass and be thinking hard about the bigger implications of any work you are proposing. This holds true for any year, but going forward in our financial climate, in particular. NSF's fav word right now is "transformative"... but only when it comes via proven methods.

11 responses so far

  • Neuropop says:

    I don't know about placing 80% of the proposals in the non-competitive region. In the panel I served on, we ended up with 20-60-20% split in the High, medium and low priority categories. However, given the discussions, it seemed clear that only the top third/half of the proposals in the high priority category had any chance of funding. Out of order pickup seems extremely unlikely in this era. Also, I thought that the graph was flipped around, so that the successful proposals needed to be both highly feasible and of high potential impact.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Ah yes, the danger of unlabeled axes. Did I mention that effective communication of figures is key too? Hahaha, fixed it, thanks.

    As far as the percentages go, there's gonna be variation from one panel to the next, I'm just reporting what I'm hearing from a few different panels. Basically, if there's only money for <10% some POs don't want to have 40-50% of the proposals to mess with when they are trying to rank them for funding based on what the panel liked and their portfolio. I'm sure some panels are running closer to business as usual on this issue.

  • GMP says:

    Yes, "transformative" is a big deal right now. (Although I personally don't believe that things can be transformative without being at least somewhat speculative.)
    But PlS's chart is spot on -- unfortunately, the chart means that you had an excellent idea a while back, worked with god knows what money to collect lots of preliminary data and show feasibility (again, workable only in affluent groups), and are only now applying for funding.

  • Patchi says:

    Retroactive funding is the way to go, as seen on PHD comics:

  • odyssey says:

    2010 was a bad year for funding from the NSF (drill down to see the funding rates at relevant clusters). 2011 doesn't promise to be much better...

  • Re: axes. Yeah, looks like the NSF is shying away from funding "high risk, high reward" projects. So if the NSF isn't doing it, who is?

  • lylebot says:

    I served on a panel recently in which the PO told us right at the beginning that we could only have one "highly competitive", at most two "competitives", and everything else had to be "not competitive". This was based on an expected funding rate for the call (not the individual panel) since there were several panels for the one call and the most competitive proposal in one panel wouldn't necessarily be one of the most competitive for the call (so there's no guarantee whatsoever that what we rate as "highly competitive" will be funded). It's pretty disheartening to have to label good research as "not competitive" though.

  • Neuropop says:

    How much of the (relatively) high funding rate in 2009 can be attributed to ARRA? NSF used those funds in 2008/2009 to award new grants (rather than dole them out as supplements or have short term mechanisms like the Challenge grants at NIH). So 2008/2009 may have been an aberration relative to the long term trends at NSF.

  • odyssey says:

    You can get that information easily enough playing with the drop-down menus on the left of the NSF funding page. For BIO the ARRA money meant a 28% funding rate in 2009 versus 18-21% in the preceding four years. But you need to drill down into relevant clusters to see how all this effects your chances. The cluster I'm funded by saw a downturn in 2010 versus 2005-2008.

  • Neuropop says:

    Got it. Seems like the BIO clusters to which I usually submit have pretty much remained flat save for a bump up in 2009. So I guess it depends. Curiously, in some cases 2008 was a disaster year.

  • becca says:

    1) prove this stuff is gonna work
    2) prove when it does, it's gonna be AWESOME
    ... (grant filler stuff)
    3) PROFIT!

    Just like NIH. Hmm.

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