I know you're out there. At least, in a haphazard way. You're aware of the online community of your constituents because I get emails from those who work for you. They engage the bloggosphere on their own time and from their non-government accounts, because you make online interaction a dirty phrase.
Of all the major funding agencies, you are the furthest behind the information age. You hide behind your homepage as though the internet is the online equivalent of the Deep Dark Woods. There is no engagement, no interaction, no troops straying outside the castle walls - only bots who catapult update emails and tweets over the defenses. In this day and age, you look old and slow.
NSF calls the internet. Photo found here
The party line you always spout is that you have federal restrictions. You can't do all the things the kids do out there, it's just not allowed. But look around you. People in high-ranking positions at NIH are on twitter. Not bots. Real people. NIH has blogs. The EPA has blogs. Even the fucking USDA has blogs. And you know what's crazy? They all allow comments. Try googling "NSF blog" and see what you get. Spoiler: You're not represented in any way other than what is being said about you.
Now, I know that you're not allowed to solicit feedback but I'm betting all those other agencies play under the same rules you do. Yet they have an online face and allow people to interact with the agency. Researchers who depend on those other agencies don't necessarily have to send letters or make online surveys to try and get your attention, then wonder if anyone received them.
NSF, you need to shed this cloak of online ignorance and get involved. Maybe you can even take one of your own sponsored workshops. Here are four ways in which you can make a foothold in the online community and change your monolog to a conversation:
1) Have at least one person from each Directorate write a blog. Crazy, I know, but try it. DON'T have it written by some nameless PR intern or have it spit out the expanded version of your daily updates, give it substance. Give the Directorate a face and let that person engage the community. Provide some data, dispel rumors, use the forum to your advantage!
2) Allow comments. Don't call it feedback, because I know how you react to that word. Don't ask for feedback, but make it possible for the community to talk to you. Listen to what is being said without forcing your employees to do so in the wee hours of the night, at home with the blinds drawn.
3) Engage in twitter. Maybe you've heard of it, but there is this thing that a lot of your constituents use that could be helpful to you. See what people are talking about. Talk back to them. You never know what ideas might come up.
4) Draw back the curtain, just a little. With an online presence beyond the homepage, you have a venue to talk about what is going on in the Directorate. You are happy to share this information with people on panels, but not outside of that. It's not clear whether this is because there is no venue for talking about NSF's inner machinations or if you don't want the community to understand how the sausage is made, but it would be an enormous help.
I hope you think about increasing your online presence, NSF. I think you'll find that engaging the online community has numerous benefits for you and for us. But for now we'll sit outside your walls and await the occasional snippet of information from panelists willing to share.