Happy 80% day!

May 15 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Today is the day there will be a collective groan across the land of NSF Bio. Roughly 80% of y'all who submitted preproposals to either DEB or IOS divisions will know by the end of the day (directly or indirectly) that you'll not be planning a full proposal for August, but a rewritten January 2014 preproposal. Many of you, myself included, already have that news.

I have to say that my attitude on the preproposals has changed as I have been more involved in the process. I'll admit right off the bat that having funding and not hitting the preproposal process as my introduction to NSF likely plays an enormous role in my reflections on the changes. I am sure I would be terrified as a new PI in the system or if I was facing a >year funding gap. No doubt I will down the road.

However, my experience has been that getting papers written has been incredibly difficult while churning 2-3 full grant applications twice a year. On top of teaching. On top of travel. On top of seeing my family once in a while. One thing the preproposals do is prevent people from sinking a ton of time into a proposal that is not ready for Prime Time. Little consolation, I know, but it's depressing to look at the trail of dead proposals I've left in my wake.

What does leave me uncomfortable is that every crucified proposal is a learning experience. Not only is it giving new PIs grantsmitting chops, it helps to learn How Things Work. For me, this was rather critical experience that I continue to learn from.

So, what is the solution for the new peeps? You're going to have to get feedback informally and from a bunch of people. Find someone who has been on the panel you're submitting to or at least a related panel. Swallow your pride and listen to the feedback you're getting. You may have a brilliant idea, but maybe you're writing to the wrong audience. Maybe the pitch is all wrong.

Oh, and get your ass on a panel.

27 responses so far

  • odyssey says:

    Sorry dude.

    MCB has moved to a single deadline a year with no preproposals... So a whole bunch of people are going to sink a whole bunch of time into writing proposals that won't be funded. I still think the single annual deadline approach is wrong, but if you're going that route, maybe preproposals aren't such a bad idea.

    And yes, to echo what you said: Get feedback and listen to it. ALL of it, not just the stuff you want to hear. And try to get your ass on a panel. If not an NSF one, a foundation one. The experience will be eye-opening.

  • Anonymous says:

    How about those of us who resubmitted pre-proposals that were *successful* last year? If it was successful once, but not upon re-submission, is it really that I'm "writing to the wrong audience" or I have my "pitch all wrong"?

    I can see that for truly noncompetitive proposals, this process reduces wasted effort. I'm less certain for moderately competitive proposals (which is probably a lot of us.) Moreover, what about wasting reviewers' time? If they re-evaluate the same proposals from last year and invite all the same ones for full proposals, then they have basically duplicated effort for no reason. OTOH, if there is *low* consistency between the first review and the second review, then that suggests that maybe the pre-proposal decisions are too arbitrary. Either way, there's a problem...

  • eeke says:

    PLS, I'm sorry to hear. Having served on a pre-proposal panel, some of the applications were truly awful. But MOST of them were excellent and deserve funding. Yes, an applicant can get some advice and try again, sure, but there's no getting around that a lot of this is a crap shoot. There just isn't enough money to go around, and we will lose some great people and great science.

  • Heavy says:

    Early stage investigator here and I really like the prelim proposal idea especially for projects where NSF is the most likely funder in cases where can't get easily repackaged for other funding sources. Not getting funded sucks. Not getting funded after putting a ton of time into it really sucks.

  • Heavy says:

    Panel liked my prelim proposal idea without any prelim data. We'll see if lack of prelim data kills it in the full proposal.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I can see that for truly noncompetitive proposals, this process reduces wasted effort. I'm less certain for moderately competitive proposals (which is probably a lot of us.) Moreover, what about wasting reviewers' time? If they re-evaluate the same proposals from last year and invite all the same ones for full proposals, then they have basically duplicated effort for no reason. OTOH, if there is *low* consistency between the first review and the second review, then that suggests that maybe the pre-proposal decisions are too arbitrary. Either way, there's a problem...

    This was a problem with full proposals as well, but now there is less effort wasted by both PIs (shorter format, one deadline) and reviewers (only panel review of 80% of submissions).

    FWIW, I had to resubmit the preproposal for my 2012 full proposal that was hung up by the congressional budget mess. The PO reported back to me that all of the preproposals representing full proposals that were on the budget fence were invited by the 2013 panel. I saw the same thing on the 2013 panel I was in, where many of the proposals we rated highest were pending 2012 funding.

    So there is some consistency from panel to panel. That said, if a preproposal barely makes the cut in one year and misses in the next, that's no different that some of the subtle stochasticity that was happening with full proposals.

  • AnotherAnonymous says:

    Fastlane is telling me I'll be invited to give a full proposal (no email yet). Pretty excited (new prof). They liked the questions and the methods but the odd part is they want me to address the concern of the reviewers/panel that I'm proposing a field/lab study but that I'm actually a theoretician.

    Weird, I thought I was a field biologists who sometimes dabbled in theory.

  • Eponymous says:

    Hi all,

    I have a silly question. Has anyone heard from IOS yet? I've been asking around and I don't know anyone who's actually heard an answer one way or the other. I understand we won't find out in the negative until as late as the 31st, but I don't know anyone who has heard in the affirmative. Anyone out there get green-lighted from IOS?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'm hearing from a number of IOS applicants.

  • emme says:

    Yes, has anyone heard from the IOS yet? I agree, I still haven't heard of anybody who has been invited. Anybody out there?

  • AnotherAnonymous says:

    Haven't got an official notification but one of mine is now listed as invited on fast lane.

  • MoreData says:

    I've got an IOS invitation to report -- (as seen on fastlane). Organism-environment interactions program. Busy summer ahead....

  • BatesProf says:

    No invite for me because of a lack of prelim data. I am not surprised due to the fact that this is a brand new project in my research repertoire. I think after I collect some prelim data this summer, the proposal will do really well next year.

  • Eponymous says:

    Ok, Silly Question II: Reading the Entrails edition:

    The "status date" of one of my IOS preproposals was updated to today's date (5/15/2013), but yet the "status" still says "pending."Does anyone have any insight into what that means? (The other IOS preproposal still has has a "status date" of January, for comparison.)

  • emme says:

    My status was updated on May 9th, and it is still pending. Not sure what it means...Last year the status of my IOS was updated a couple of time before I got the invitation.

  • Terry says:

    I recently got (good) word from another program - the context statement said that 10% were recommended for funding. These declining funding rates are just f'ed up. So many great projects, and so many great people, left in a canoe without a paddle.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    My impression is that status dates are more an internal thing and may or may not reflect any change on your end. In other words, don't read into them.

  • microbe says:

    Has anyone heard from IOS panel "Symbiosis, Defense, and Self-recognition" (Plant)?

  • Michelle Elekonich says:

    Hi Everyone-
    You might remember me guest blogging for PLS from IOS...all the IOS invites were out by close of business on 5/15 as promised.

    The status dates means something was done to the file but that could be any number of things including uploading a context statement or adding an internal notation (aka a diary note).

  • Bummer. No notice yet, but as it's the 16th, looks like it's a resubmit for me....

  • emme says:

    Sad news for me too. It is disconcerting. Last year my pre-proposal got all excellent. This year it was improved following suggestions and not even invited. I am looking forward to read the reviews, but so far I am discouraged by the inconsistency.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Would you feel better if it was the full proposal that got that kind of feedback? The consistency claim has always been a feature (not a bug) of NSF review.

  • I have a colleague who got all excellents on an unfunded full proposal. THREE times. Her PO could only tell her that it was about distribution of funding (that is, how much goes where and to what sorts of projects).

  • proflikesubstance says:

    That's a very different problem.

  • True. Just saying - getting all excellents on an unfunded full proposal would likely be even more frustrating. I'd rather have room to improve/move up.

  • Sorry, dude. Looks like I'm a no-go, also.

    I have to say, it's very intimidating being new right now, on multiple levels. We've only done two rounds or pre's so far, and no one I talk to has a very good intuitive sense of how to write a successful one (except you. :)). As for getting on a panel, I'm trying; none of the POs I wrote to bit his year. Meanwhile, I'm getting advice to get on a proposal with more senior lead PIs, to "get into the club," while DEB is putting out blog posts that proposals with fewer collaborators do better. And, I know someone who had a grant retracted in January after NSF decided he had too much funding. AND, a lot of the senior collaborators I know are already maxed out in terms of number of proposals, and in spite of what DEB folks tell me, folks who have served on panels have said that ECR-only pre-proposals do more poorly, because reviewers don't give them the benefit of the doubt that they give senior folks.

    In other words, I'm trying to be optimistic and goal-oriented, but I'm struggling with figuring out a strategy. I get that it's easier to blame others than take responsibility for your failures, but I do feel that the current situation is not very friendly to ECR's.

    In the meantime, on to the next three, I guess.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    The problem is that there is no One Way to write a good preproposal, just like there isn't one way to write the full proposals. I totally get that new people are facing a tough row to hoe right now. I don't (honestly) know whether it was tougher with the 2 full proposals per year at 15% success or in the new system, but the success rates are tough. We all have to play the hand we're dealt.

    I've never been much for the "join forces with an established PI" strategy. If I had to do it again I would bang out data in year one and use that to submit in year two, ignoring the impulse to submitsubmitsubmit for one year. But if you're coming out of a postdoc with a bunch of data in hand, this might not be the way to go.

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