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.