04 August 2011

What’s new at NSF BIO

Earlier this week, I was at a National Science Foundation workshop at The University of Texas Brownsville. Although I’ve been in the region for a while now, this was the first time I’d visited the campus there. There are many handsome buildings, with very strongly Mexican / colonial Spanish architecture.

A large amount of the workshop was spent describing the review process, which surprised me a bit. I’d have thought the NSF staffers would be more concerned about preparation.

Two things emerged as important to the participants, it seemed to me.

The review panels change. Thus, there were a lot of discussions about when a proposal is rejected, should you specifically address the criticisms raised by the reviewers in a revised proposal? There seems to be no definite answer to that; very much a case by case decision.

The program director decides who gets the money. This means that the program directors can, and do, override the reviewers recommendations to some degree. I will have more to say about this in a separate post.

Steve Howell started off with some very basic information about the NSF and the biological directorate. He characterized the budget situation for next year as facing “tough times ahead.”

Howell said that some of the major initiatives in NSF right now are sustainability and clean energy; the interface between biology, math, and physics; and cyberinfrastructure (Howell characterized this as the “data deluge”).

Another major new initiative is the national ecological observatory network (NEON), which just started a couple of days ago. It’s a nationwide remote monitoring system. Howell described it as the biggest investment that the biological division at NSF has made in a long time: $440 million over 10 years.

Howell talked a bit about a program in collaboration with the Gates Foundation called BREAD that supports agricultural research in developing countries (Gates Foundation picks up part of that, because NSF can’t fund outside of the United States). Expect more partnerships with industry and private foundations.

Howell talked about the perception that NSF is too risk averse, and there are a couple of new programs for new evaluations. The “big pitch” is a 2 page pitch that can goes to a separate panel – the idea that there is a panel that won’t get bogged down in the details. Molecular and Cellular Evolution are trying this.

Another one is called the “ideas lab”, where the key is “real time mentoring.” A group of applicants are selected to work on a project, with a panel that does real time mentoring for the proposal. The hope is that groups of people can push into some new frontiers.

The molecular and cell guys (the MCB division only) are moving to an 8 month review cycle instead of the six month turnaround typical of NSF. The reason given in the initial presentation was that NSF wanted to give people a longer time to work on revising proposals, although elsewhere during the workshop  I got the impression that this is also part of a move to try to relieve panelists and reviewers of some of the burden.

Howell also discussed what are known as “Dear colleague” letters. “Dear colleague” letters are important because they give an idea of what NSF wants to fund. These are popular for those working at NSF because it’s easier to clear publication of a letter than an actual grant solicitation.

Looking around at the coffee break, it seems that there are about 2-3 men for every woman. About a third are not white, I would say.

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