Talk to your PO... and a few more

Jul 11 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

In NSFlandia there are two kinds of Program Officer: "permanent" and rotating. Rotators are those who have academic jobs and are essentially "on loan" to NSF for 1 - 3 years, whereas the permanent members are NSF staff. Every program that I have ever interacted with has a mix of both PO types and your proposal may be handled by either.

Why does this matter? Because there are always new people coming in to every panel and sometimes their interests are going to line up with yours. It's easy to get into the habit of submitting to the same panel all the time, but by not exploring other panels you may be missing an opportunity.

Over the last few years I have had the opportunity to interact with roughly 10 - 15 different POs in a few different roles. Early in my career I assumed that POs shared similar agendas or at least had an NSF script they were supposed to follow, but reality is very different. Whereas there are obviously certain commonalities, it is far more similar to an academic department with all its personalities and perspectives. And why shouldn't it be?

But there are two critical points that follow from this that I had little appreciation for early on: 1) NSF program officers have much more authority to pick and choose what they want to fund than many other agencies, and 2) Different POs get excited about different science. Therefore, if you can find a PO who is excited about the work you are proposing, you are MUCH better off* than working with a PO indifferent to what you are trying to accomplish.

This is why it helps to talk to more than your assigned PO. It is often true that there are more than one panel that your proposal would fit in. Check the backgrounds of the POs of other panels and see if anyone works or worked on something related to what you do. Call up that PO up and see how receptive they are to the work you are proposing. Also remember that rotators are only around for a short time, so you need to act quickly if you do find an advocate.

Things are tight right now. Any slight edge you can get is well worth the effort.

*Within reason, obv. It's not like they are going to pick up a mediocre proposal just because it is on a system they like.

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