NSF service and secrecy: where's the line?

May 06 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers], LifeTrajectories

Blogging or tweeting about your primary funding sources can be an interesting challenge. I regularly hear from people on the interwebs that they have been cautioned against doing either* from "concerned senior people". To a certain extent I get where they are coming from - the risk of pissing of a PO who decides you don't fit into their portfolio is possible**. In addition, NSF deploys a Cloak of Secrecy when it comes to panel service.

Once you agree to serve on a panel you quickly learn that the first rule of Panel Service is that you don't talk about Panel Service. Not to you friends, not to your colleagues, not to a fox, not in a box. In stark contrast to NIH making the study section roster available to everyone, NSF wants your visit to be treated like you would an interview for a job at another university. Therefore, using social media to publicly detail your time there flies right in the face of official policy. But the problem with all the secrecy is that it leads to difficulty in first time panelists knowing what to expect and to false rumors about the process.

Enter the Fine Line.

When I started blogging I did it for the express purpose of providing a resource to others about what this job entails. Granted, we've meandered and weaved over the last five years, but when I have been asked to participate at NSF I have faced a dilemma - how does one pull back the curtain enough to educate others while not running afoul of the rules? The result is that I've often blogged about the process of dealing with panel service, but never details about the who, when and where. There's reasons I never discuss which panels I apply to or review for and it represents my compromise.

As far as I can tell, I haven't pissed anyone off yet. In fact, my interactions with POs in both IOS and DEB have suggested that they like to see the community discussing what is going on at NSF and, in particular, dispelling rumors that seem to persist. I've had a PO guest blog about what it is like working at NSF (Parts 1, 2 & 3) and it's fairly common for the DEB blog to link back here, as I hope the soon-to-open IOS blog will.

Does that mean there's no risk at all? Of course not. I can tell you that the first time an NSF PO called me out about the blog during a visit to NSF it was an unexpected and uncomfortable moment that I didn't handle very well (and they may still chuckle to themselves about). However, it also speaks to the power of the medium, that one can speak up and be heard***. There are issues and pressures faced by junior faculty that may not be represented by those who have the ear of NSF insiders. Blogging about them is educational to the blogger, the reader community and sometimes to NSF. All of those people are listening and you have the opportunity to get your perspective in their heads, whether they agree with it or not.

Everyone will make their own choices about whether they want to engage their funding source in a public forum and whether they want to do it under their given name or not. I have chosen to do so using a wafer psued that didn't stand up to minor scrutiny and I've always known that. But when people tell you that using social media isn't the "proper" way to engage, they are doing so from a very different space than the one you likely occupy. Obviously you need to balance what your colleagues are saying with your own experience, but it is also worth considering how and when you want to be heard.

*and generally engaging in social media, because it's obviously a waste of your professional time.

**Though I can't actually imagine that happening in practice.

***Also a great reminder to be smart about what you write. Criticism is often warranted, but recognize the different perspectives bearing on the issue you are concerned with.

One response so far

  • BirdNerd says:

    I've sat on a few different types of panels for NSF and my impression is that NSF wants panelists to help dispel rumors and myths about the panel process. They seem to be happy to have panelists discuss what seems to work, and what doesn't, with their colleagues. Of course, identifying other panelists or providing specific information about proposals is totally off-limits. As you mentioned, this means figuring out where to draw that Fine Line. In my opinion, most people can figure out where that line is without too much difficulty. For example, posting photos from a panel dinner on Instagram? Line crossed. Suggesting to a young investigator that spending two pages of a four page pre-proposal on Broader Impacts probably isn't a good idea? Line safely avoided.

    Overall, I think you've done a good job pulling the curtain back as far as possible and providing folks an insider's perspective on the NSF process without disclosing any secret information.

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