Today's post is the second of three (part 1 here, part 3 here) Guest post installments about life as an NSF PO. Michelle Elekonich has been kind enough to write her thoughts down about her experiences at NSF.
What is it like to work at NSF? Much more fast paced and deadline driven than being an academic and constrained in different ways. It is a highly regulatory environment and the decisions have far reaching implications – even beyond the lives and careers of the PIs involved. Decisions made this year can affect what can be funded next year, and new programs may compete for funding with more established ones. Because about half the scientific staff are rotators it sometimes reminds me of being in grad school where everyone is in the same boat trying to figure things out. Once a new rotator gets to NSF they start learning all the software that is on the other side of Fastlane and go to what NSF calls “The Program Management Seminar”, fondly known as “Bootcamp”. It is a 4 day seminar where you learn all about the NSF’s history, working in the federal context, what the various service units at NSF (like the Office of the Inspector General, Travel, the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs etc) do relative to the review process and your duties and how to handle problematic situations- like being called to testify before congress or having one of the awards you manage be featured in Senator Coburn’s Wastebook (this one actually happened to me). One of the most important things I learned was that almost all of the review process varies around the foundation- some directorates or divisions within a directorate use preliminary proposals (BIO was not the first to do so), others don’t; some have one deadline a year others don’t ; some use only external reviews, some use only panel reviews and some use both; some have panels made up of program directors and some have outside PIs run the panel and the program directors observe, while others like BIO have panels run by program directors but made up of PIs.
Bootcamp is where I first learned about the Hatch Act which prohibits federal employees from lobbying congress. This is why NSF is not working the Hill to get more money. In fact, the only time NSF gets input into the budget is in the request to the Office of Science and Technology Policy as the budget is being developed – typically a year and half ahead of the actual start of that budget. Because the congress almost never passes the budget on time, all of the government starts most fiscal years on a continuing resolution- that puts NSF programs typically at 80% of their prior year’s budget. This could last a month or many months. It wasn’t until I came to NSF that I realized why it mattered to me in my lab back at UNLV that the government was on a continuing resolution (CR in acronym speak- ☺), it limits the number of awards a program officer can make right away with the fall round of proposals. Fortunately, usually the CR doesn’t last and more awards can be made later. With the new preliminary proposal/full proposal system it means that the funding rates for the core programs won’t be known until late in the fiscal year.