The Life of an NSF Program Officer (Part 2): What is it like to work at NSF?

Dec 13 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

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.

13 responses so far

  • KateClancy says:

    Thanks so much to Michelle for doing this -- I really appreciate hearing more about the other side of the NSF!

  • DrugMonkey says:

    How much time do you spend on the phone with applicants? What fraction of it is productive science talk versus talking down the panic? What is the internal water cooler feeling about young investigators and softmoney investigators?

  • Michelle Elekonich says:

    "How much time do you spend on the phone with applicants? What fraction of it is productive science talk versus talking down the panic? "

    Depends on what time of year it is- more just before a deadline or after a decision - about 50% at those time and about 10% day to day. Mostly it is productive - by the time people get on the phone with us there are a lot of questions and little panic.

    "What is the internal water cooler feeling about young investigators and softmoney investigators?"
    Not sure what you mean here...we feel positive about both ....the trouble for soft money folks is usually in convincing the panel that they have adequate institutional support that will be available for the duration of the project...

  • MOTB says:

    Are you, as a PO, allowed to apply for grants to run your lab? As a PO, does it really matter to you, when it comes down to the wire, about whether an applicant spoke to you or not? As in: If A and B both have strong proposals (and all things being equal: institutional support, ability to do research etc) and you can only fund one, do you go with the person (let's assume that A spoke to you) who spoke to you?

  • Michelle Elekonich says:

    "Are you, as a PO, allowed to apply for grants to run your lab?"
    A PO cannot apply to NSF while he/she is at NSF but can do so the day after he/she leaves and can apply to other agencies while at NSF....since I have always had a multi-agency strategy for my lab this works ok for me.

    "As a PO, does it really matter to you, when it comes down to the wire, about whether an applicant spoke to you or not? As in: If A and B both have strong proposals (and all things being equal: institutional support, ability to do research etc) and you can only fund one, do you go with the person (let's assume that A spoke to you) who spoke to you?"

    No it does not. But you should indeed talk to your PO if you have questions either before submitting or after a decision.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    So that sounds like NSF panels are biased against softmoney job categories to me. True?

  • Michelle Elekonich says:

    "So that sounds like NSF panels are biased against softmoney job categories to me. True?"

    I don't think it is a bias so much as experience with the sometimes tenuous nature of support for those people at many institutions. Panelists know what kind of support comes with being a faculty member, and know that soft money positions are more variable. When I have observed a panel to raise the issue it is most often because the soft money PI failed to make clear how much institutional support they had. When it is clear that the support is in place it doesn't really seem to matter. So it really goes to feasibility rather than job category.

  • Michelle Elekonich says:

    I should add to the last post that in IOS we don't see all that many soft money researchers - unlike what I expect they see at NIH as to my knowledge those positions are more common at medical schools...

  • [...] and what that decision entails. Over the next two days I'll have two more posts in this series. (Part 2, Part [...]

  • [...] three posts on what it’s like to be an NSF program officer. The first two are here and here. The third will appear today. She’s been answering questions in the comments section, too, [...]

  • [...] up? Where does the money come from and how are panels put together. If you missed them, Part 1 and Part 2 of the series were posted earlier. With this last installment posted, I want to thank Michelle for [...]

  • drugmonkey says:

    When it is clear that the support is in place it doesn't really seem to matter.

    What "support" do you mean...in the context of soft versus hard money PIs?

    experience with the sometimes tenuous nature of support for those people at many institutions.

    The reason I call it a bias is because in the vast majority of cases that I run across (this is NIH-land) where this sort of thing comes up, it is about space and the nebulous concept of independence. particularly as this latter applies to the former. And the testimony to that space can be essentially equally BS for 100% hard money and 100% softmoney faculty. the thing that *does* make the institution shape up is...you guessed it....the brand new grant award.

    You can say the same about promises for shared equipment and other core resources.

    Departmental "support"? Same dealio. Sure, maybe a Chair is extra concerned about the person with a new startup package but ultimately $$ talks and a big award gets the investigator what they need.

    So are we really only talking about existing funding?

  • Michelle Elekonich says:

    By support I mean access to space, equipment etc. Both institutional and departmental. No one is required to have funding to get funding and soft money PIs do indeed get funded.

    When I have seen the PIs status as a soft money person discussed by a panel it has usually been because they were given little information about departmental or institutional support. Panelists in NSF-land know that promises are not always kept, but generally if there is information about the situation will take it at face value (my impression is that they are less cynical in this way than NIH panelists but who knows???). In general it is poor grantsmanship to have the reviewer guessing about anything.

    Additionally one really big difference is that the panel's rating is *advisory* to the program directors, so if a program director felt that there was a bias in the discussion in addition to addressing it during the discussion, he/she could choose not to use that part of the advice and even indicate that to the PI by using the strikethrough feature in the system within the offending review or panel summary. Program Officers/Directors (officially directors but used pretty much interchangably) have a lot of lee way in how they use the panel's advice. But they also have oversight by the division director so they have to be able to justify a decision that goes against the panel's advice in the review analysis that I talked about in the third part of this series of guest posts.

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