The NSF DEB blog is running the numbers from the first round of preproposals and resulting full proposals in a series of posts right now (part 1, Part 2). Other than the simple fact that I'm giddy about the information and analysis coming out of this blog, there are some really interesting insights into the funding decision making. One thing that caught my eye from part 2 of the numbers series, was the following (emphasis added):
At this point in time, the whole process appears to be avoiding disproportionate impacts on Beginning Investigators and Primarily Undergraduate Institutions. However, both of these groups have historically been minority groups in submissions to DEB and furthermore underrepresented in award portfolios compared to submissions. While we can report changes over time and compare between groups, these numbers do not provide answers to the questions that underpin evaluations of progress: What is the right mix of Beginning Investigators and Primarily Undergraduate Institutions in an award portfolio? And, how can we reach the right mix in awards? Would such a mix require a change in submission patterns and/or changes in peer review practices and/or changes in Program Officer handling of the submissions we already receive?
We all know that the NSF system is for amateurs, but even in this context, the researchers a Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs) are at the biggest disadvantage when it comes to research productivity. Typically using only undergraduate help and while teaching 3-4 classes per semester, faculty at PUIs have to fit research into the thin cracks of open time and try to make the most out of summers. This is toughest on early career PIs, creating multiple courses. Many do it successfully, but the PUI category exists because of the likely limit in productivity.
DEB's numbers for the last 7 years indicate that proposal success rate originating from PUIs hovers between 12-15%, with submissions to the total pool between 14-18%. And this is WITH portfolio balancing* by POs. Presumably NSF is happy with this success rate, reflected by the consistency of the numbers over time. The question is, should tax payers be happy with that rate?
When budgets get tight institutions need to look at value for their money. In NIH land, there have been two responses to the too-many-mouths-at-the-trough problem; 1) Kill the rich, 2) Eliminate the small town grocer. NSF has toed the more "Canadian" line by mixing portfolio balancing and basically telling PIs with major roles in two or more proposals that they shouldn't bother submitting another lead proposal.
So I'm curious whether people believe this is the best route for science? For the tax payer? For innovation? What say ye?
*POs are required to balance their grant portfolios based on several factors, including PI gender, ethnicity, institution type, state, etc.