NSF BIO decides to screw new investigators

Aug 17 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

So I was happily going through my email this morning and opened up one of those "daily digest" emails from NSF. Ten seconds later my keyboard and screen were covered in coffee spray.

NSF BIO has been looking to make some changes to their review process for a while. The MCB division of BIO recently announced that they were going to an 8 month cycle, whereby there would still be two deadlines a year, but proposals could only be submitted to one or the other. They also limited the number of proposals that a person could be listed as PI or co-PI to one per cycle. Odyssey has a summary of the changes here.

Now, the IOS and DEB divisions of Bio have decided to see those changes and raise them. Both divisions released new core program solicitations today (DEB and IOS links) changing the annual format of proposal deadlines. In both cases, 5 page preproposals will be due in January on the dates that were formally proposal deadlines (the 9th and 12th, respectively). Those preproposals will be reviewed and full proposals will be by invite only in.... AUGUST!

That's right, a mere 7 fucking months between pre- and full proposal submission. Invited proposals will only be accepted in August, annually. So NSF basically stole all of the things that people hate about the USDA proposal process and decided those would be great to implement.

In addition, individuals may only be listed as PI or co-PI on two proposals annually. Now, a key factor here is that these are within-division rules, so if you can apply to multiple divisions you may be able to skirt this rule. This also does not apply to special programs like AToL or CAREER. But if you are limited to a single division, it's time to start dumping collaborators.

The group this is most going to affect, IMO, is new investigators. With the national and institutional focus on multidisciplinary research over the last 5 years, most younger scientists have been encouraged to pursue areas of research that are highly collaborative. Now NSF is pulling the rug out. As a PI trying to get your research program off the ground, are you going to work on collaborative proposals or concentrate on the bread and butter of your lab's focus if you are limited to two proposals annually? Hmmm, let me see...

It also means that there will be an enormous lag between proposing the work and getting meaningful feedback. I'm sure the preproposals will be reviewed in a timely fashion, but in order to get feedback on the full proposal it will be at least a year from inception to reviews.

Also note that the current July deadlines already mean that we don't get reviews back on proposals until Nov-Dec. Pushing this deadline to August will almost certainly mean that reviews on full proposals will not be available in time for the preproposal stage in January if the full proposal doesn't get funded. Therefore, if you submit a preproposal in January 2012 and it gets invited for a full proposal in August 2012 but doesn't get funded, you likely will not be able to resubmit that same (revised) proposal until January 2014 with the hope of seeing money by January 2015!

Labs go extinct in that amount of time.

Yes, BIO will be achieving the goal of reducing reviewer burden, but the cost of this move could be substantial if the bar for tenure remains the same for NSF funded individuals. Laughably, in retrospect, NSF has fought hard against those who have called for capping the overhead amount. The argument has been that they did not want to devalue NSF research in the eyes of universities by making NSF grants less "profitable" on a dollar to dollar basis than NIH grants. This new policy, however, has the possible side effect of making NSF research a riskier proposal for new investigators - at least from a time to first grant perspective. Don't be surprised if the further marginalization of NSF funded research at major universities takes a big leap forward over the next 5 years.

31 responses so far

  • Natalie says:

    Oh fuck.

  • odyssey says:

    Almost makes MCB's decision to go to an eight month cycle look good. This is incredibly stupid and shortsighted on the part of BIO, and particularly the IOS and DEB divisions.

  • namnezia says:

    So I guess the best strategy would be to write two pre-proposals for Jan, then hope one gets selected and submit the application in August and send the other one to the NIH in October.

    Did they say what the funding rate of the preselected proposals would be? If its high, then this might not be such a bad move since you can target the proposals better.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Nam, no info there that I could find.

  • gerty-z says:

    wow. I get that NSF wants to "reduce reviewer burden". But have they really thought about what they are doing?

  • hematophage says:

    That's...rather scary.

    @namnezia, but not all of us even have NIH as an option...

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I am gradually coming around to CPP's view that these types of moves are intentional strategies to pare back the investigator pool. To me this looks like the passive-aggressive way...

  • CoR says:

    I have been told that the acceptance level of USDA grants is high following the pre-proposal, so the net effect of this move might be similar. I guess I am not surprised. We need to think creatively, and diversify *until* we have sufficient funding to make headway on one project. At that point, I believe you focus and try for small pots from foundations and the like to make ends meet.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    Gerty Z: The people I've met from NSF are pretty clever. I think they have thought it through, but will have a lot of explaining to do about the rationale and expected effects. There hasn't really been any warning or discussion about this - and I was talking to several program directors from these agencies just two weeks ago. No hints about this happening at all.

    But this is a trivial problem compared to low funding rates. If this move was announced when 20% of grants were being funded instead of less than 10%, people might not be freaking out quite so much.

    Eyes on the prize: talk to people about more funding and worry less about the submission timing.

  • Odyssey says:

    So who is going to review the preproposals? If it's the PO's the success rate might not be so high - they will likely focus on preproposals that best fit their portfolios. If it's review panels, then the success rate is likely very high - I suspect reviewers will only trash the obviously flawed proposals.

    And how much feedback will applicants get for their denied preproposals?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    So who is going to review the preproposals?

    According to the details in the link, it will be done by panel without ad hocs. So one panel for the preporopsal, and presumably, a different panel for the full proposals....

    And Zen, your last statement is a lot easier to make from one side of the tenure fence than the other.

  • MZ says:

    In the FAQ section of the announcement, they address part of the issue of funding rates:

    What is the expected success rate of full proposals under the new solicitation?
    One of the primary reasons for this new solicitation is to reduce the tremendous investmentof time and energy by the PI community in developing full proposals, which presently have alow success rate. The success rate for preliminary proposals therefore is likely to be quitelow; however, the success rate for invited full proposals will probably be in the range of25%-35%.

    It remains to be seen what effect this will have on submissions, of course, but I agree that it's potentially a real problem for more junior investigators.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    It will likely be a couple of years before this settles out, as well. I can guarantee that the preproposal rate in January will be artificially high because everyone will feel that they can't afford NOT to send one in. Anyone who was planning a July 2012 submission will be sending in preproposals, on top on the January crowd, and may who were questioning a summer submission.

  • Gotta agree with DM/CPP, this seems like the beginning of thinning out the PI-herd. Sadly PLS is right that is mostly going raise hell with new investigators whose tenure clocks are counting down to the zero mark.

  • greigite says:

    What I'd like to know is if there's any chance of seeing reviews from this year's July submission before the Jan 2012 pre-proposal deadline. Otherwise will we just have to resubmit blind?

  • We need to think creatively, and diversify *until* we have sufficient funding to make headway on one project. At that point, I believe you focus and try for small pots from foundations and the like to make ends meet.

    No. No. No. No. No. This is absolutely wrong.

    Even once you have "sufficient funding to make headway on one project", you should continue to hammer the system with R01-size grants (whether NIH or NSF) until you have "sufficient funding to make headway on another project", and then you should *still* continue to hammer the system with R01-size grants (whether NIH or NSF) until you have "sufficient funding to make headway on another project".

    Unless you want to end up one of those people ranting and raving on the Internet about how FACTUAL ERRORS OF ONE INCOMPETENT AND UNETHICAL REVIEWER DESTROYED MY CAREER, you will never stop submitting R01-size grants.

    Trying for "small pots" almost always has a lower expected net value (controlling for the time and effort it takes to apply) than applying for R01-size grants. The only reason to apply for "small pots" is (1) before you have any R01-size funding, (2) in order to obtain funding that lacks certain spending restrictions of NIH/NSF funding, or (3) because you have lost all your other funding and are desperate.

  • MediumPriority4life says:

    Seems like Universities will need to rethink what deserves tenure.

  • CoR says:

    I was not clear, but I did not mean that one should stop applying for the bigger R01ish grants. I was thinking that the smaller pots might help make ends meet given fewer submission cycles. That said, I do not know how much time the foundation grants take.

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    At what point does the Canadian system (NSERC Discovery Grants) start to look good to US investigators? Briefly, the idea is to sustainably fund excellent long-term research programs, not individual projects, which in practice means much higher success rates but (somewhat) smaller grants. See



    http://oikosjournal.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/should-granting-agencies-fund-projects-or-people/ for discussion.

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