Dear junior scientists, get on a panel. Now.

Dec 01 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I was talking the other day with a colleague. They had just received their first NSF award ever. As a full professor. This person has obviously had funding from other sources in the past but had submitted a fair number of NSF proposals to this point. Noting that it was odd to finally hit one when funding rates are at their lowest in a while, our discussion turned to what made this one different.

What my colleague said then should surprise no one who has been paying attention here and elsewhere in the science bloggosphere. They said that early in their career, they had not made any effort to go to NSF and get involved with a panel. Only a few years back they did so and it dramatically changed how they framed and wrote their proposal.

You know who else never landed an NSF grant until getting his ass on a panel? This guy.

If you are a junior PI or postdoc who plans to apply to NSF, you NEED to be thinking about getting on a panel. Now, this can be a little tricky because you are likely applying to the panel closest to your expertise, but find a related panel and Make. It. Happen.

People often ask how one gets on a panel and the answer is fairly simple. Ask. Decide on a panel and email or call the PO. Tell them you're an early career person and really want to get involved in a panel. Unlike NIH, NSF makes a concerted effort to involve early career people in the review process. Both panels I have been on has been skewed towards more junior people and has included 2 postdocs in the mix. Use this to your advantage!

I have already gotten two emails requesting willing participants for the spring preproposals, so now is the time to get on the list. Don't wait, email your PO this week and get to DC.

30 responses so far

  • Hagbard says:

    So what if there very little else with respect to "similar" review panels? Just ask to be a reviewer for the one closest to you? I should note I'm still a postdoc so a few years out from seeking funding through them.

  • Bashir says:

    I am trying to do this with NIH. The process of getting an invite to 'sit-in' on a panel seems to be only slightly less competitive than actually getting the grant. I'm not sure what I have a better shot at, my postdoc grant in review or getting a sit-in invite. Makes me wonder about the actual usefulness of the program.

  • If you are a post-doc, and not a faculty member or equivalent, you will never get on an NIH peer review panel. Ever. Period.

  • international postdoc says:

    Hi, are international postdocs eligible to sit on a panel?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I don't know if international postdocs can sit on panels. Ask you PO.

  • T says:

    Do you have any advice for if you have contacted the NSF frequently, over several years, to be on a panel? I've done this and have never been invited. It's frustrating, because everyone says "get on a panel" but I can't seem to.

  • aaaa says:

    International faculty (those on H1-Bs) can certainly sit on NSF panels, though they won't get the NSF per diem compensation. The same may apply to postdocs on H1-B.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Have you tried multiple POs or panels?

  • eeke says:

    I have had the same luck as T. Like the kid in the back row with her hand up "ooh, ooh, pick me,pick me,pick me..!" But I never get invited either, and I have one of these grants. I've also been an ad hoc reviewer in the past. Is there some club or something? Do you have to know one of the PO's personally? How much do I need to be a pest about it? I've heard complaints that they have trouble getting enough reviewers, but there must be some narrow pool of folks that they consider for this. wtf?

  • monkeyontheback says:

    I participated in an NSF panel on an H1B; you dont get paid the per-diem though NSF reimburses your actual costs. This was 5 years ago.
    Since then, I have never been invited (I am in an undergraduate institution; chemistry is my area). I have personally contacted several POs (different divisions), put in word with all my collaborators at R1 institutions, talked to POs (though all of them say that NSF is constantly looking for new reviewers blah blah blah) at several conferences and workshops AND updated/registered on the NSF website numerous times. But no dice.
    I have given up.
    PS: I have been funded by NSF before.
    PPS: It's also quite possible that I am one of those people who fall through the cracks through no fault of theirs.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    WRT the issue of no similar panels to the one you apply to: I can't honestly see how this is possible. Every one of my proposals could be sent to multiple panels with a slight change in spin, you just need to think about it. I would also ask your PO about related panels or panels that frequently co-review with them.

    Regarding not being invited to a panel: A lot depends on what you can bring to the table. If you want to be on an evo/devo panel and you work on flies, guess what? They have a pool of 437 people to ask for panel service so you could wait a while. OTOH, if you can make a unique contribution to a panel you will get picked sooner. Again, here is where looking at panels outside the one you apply to is important. You may work on a common subject in your primary panel, but by asking bout serving in a related panel you could bring totally unique expertise.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Bashir, why don't you look to NSF for some panel experience? You should be able to play up your non-applied side enough to interest some panel. I know a lot of NIH folks apply to MCB as well.

  • studyzone says:

    Do you know if faculty at SLACs/PUIs have served on panels, or if NSF prefers only those at R1s? I intend to apply for a RUI eventually, and would love the experience of serving on a panel (having done some ad-hoc review with my PI during my postdoc).

  • T says:

    I have indeed tried multiple panels/POs. Like monkeyontheback, I go to these conferences and they say "please volunteer!" and I do but no response. Also like monekyontheback, I'm at an undergraduate institution. I wonder if that is a factor?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    IME NSF panels are balanced in the same way that PO portfolios are - representatives of all major constituents.

  • JGB says:

    What about letting educators audit the panel experience? Science Journalists? It seems like this could be an interesting way to provide some additional outside contact with the process. I spend a lot of time trying to help all of my students, not just future STEM majors understand how science really happens including the messy and boring parts (within reason). Giving the broader public a strong concept of how we decide to fund projects would be very illuminating and valuable.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I can't imagine NSF agreeing to that, but I don't know.

  • Joshua King says:

    PLS I don't agree with your emphasis on "getting on a panel." It worked for you and that is great. But as others have pointed out, that is not necessarily as easy as asking, even repeatedly. It is also certainly not a "make or break" situation if you don't become a panel member. If you get on, great, if you don't, don't despair. Many of the folks that I know of with long histories of NSF funding got it without ever sitting on a panel, or only sitting on panels later in their career. Likewise I can think of others who have long histories (e.g. in one case nearly 7 years of panel service) before landing an NSF grant. The granting process is capricious, period. Ask to be on panels, but I think that beyond doing your homework (i.e. looking at a number of successful grants, asking to be on panels, talking to PO's, etc.) it isn't worth getting too worked up about.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I never said panel service is make or break, but it certainly gives you an appreciation for the review process from the inside. For me, it changed how I approached the writing, but it also came at a time that I was figuring that all out in other ways. While not necessary, panel service can be very instructive for early career folks. Plus, it never hurts to get opportunities to talk to POs face to face.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    As solid as this advice is, it bugs me. It makes it look like getting an NSF grant is determined by unwritten standards maintained by an established network of well-connected people, with fairly high barriers to entry.

    The NSF shouldn't a be a country club.

  • What about letting educators audit the panel experience? Science Journalists? It seems like this could be an interesting way to provide some additional outside contact with the process.

    Dunno about the laws governing NSF peer review, but the federal laws governing NIH peer review strictly prohibit this.

  • eeke says:

    CPP - both NSF and NIH are federal agencies. Why wouldn't federal law also cover NSF? Does this law have something to do with confidentiality? Can you be more specific about what laws you are talking about?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Zen, your getting a little tin foil hat club there. Seeing how things work from the inside of anything is useful but not critical. Being on a panel is not an exclusive club and it simply gives you experience with what most reviewers deal with.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    PLS: I know there's can be a big difference between appearances and reality, but appearances matter.

    That there is a substantial number of replies indicating people want to serve, but haven't been invited, and that there's no clear understanding of why that is, does not help promote the appearance that panel selection is a transparent process.

    P.S. - My hat is made from the finest aluminum.

  • [...] I mentioned on Saturday, I strongly encourage junior people to try and get on an NSF panel. A couple of people commented [...]

  • Viola says:

    Hi PLS,

    I just emailed my CV to an NSF PO in my area (after okay-ing this on the phone with the PO, of course). Hopefully I will serve on a panel sometime soon-ish - all the faculty in my department have agreed that it's very useful and worth the time.

    Anyway, I just want to say how much I appreciate your useful, applicable advice. You are awesome.


  • proflikesubstance says:

    I hope you get chosen, good luck.

  • [...] Oh, and get your ass on a panel. [...]

  • […] I've said this before, but it bears restating: if you are applying for NSF funds and have never been on a panel, you are shooting yourself in the foot. There's always questions about how panels work, but there's no substitute for doing it yourself. It is a TON of work, but worth every second. […]

  • […] been said before elsewhere that serving on an NSF panel is an eye-opening experience, not just because you gain […]

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