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NSF: No cures, please

"I guess it must be two o'clock." NSF's Eve Barak was standing at a podium looking out at a large room that was only about one-fifth full. It was day 3 (December 3) of the American Society for Cell Biology's annual meeting, and Barak was here to outline what biologists need to do to receive an NSF grant. During the session (during which more scientists trickled in, making the room half-full), Barak, who has spent the last 20 years helping review biology grant applications

By | December 4, 2007

"I guess it must be two o'clock." NSF's Eve Barak was standing at a podium looking out at a large room that was only about one-fifth full. It was day 3 (December 3) of the American Society for Cell Biology's annual meeting, and Barak was here to outline what biologists need to do to receive an NSF grant. During the session (during which more scientists trickled in, making the room half-full), Barak, who has spent the last 20 years helping review biology grant applications to the NSF, said scientists need to think of the agency as something much different from the NIH. That agency's mission is the "science of health," she said, while NSF's is the "health of science." Her tips were clear: "If your project is disease-related, health-related, you should not submit a proposal to the National Science Foundation. " In fact, if health-related proposal has no larger impact (say, on teaching young scientists) she said, the agency will return it without review. During a slightly-antagonistic question and answer period (the audience was understandably eager for some of the NSF's money), the first audience member to stand up asked the question on the minds of many: "How careful do we need to be about not sounding like we're curing a disease?" Barak paused. "Extremely," she said, stretching out the "ee", causing some chuckles in the audience. Later in the session, the same scientist came back to the microphone. What if what we happen to be working on ends up curing cancer? If you can envision at the time of your application how your work might cure cancer, "that's not going to fly with us," she said. If the work just happens to cure cancer in a way that's impossible to envision now, that's fine. Another point: If a scientist is well funded by another agency, that is a "very very strong consideration for us," Barak noted. "We shall take it as - how should I say it - a negative grounding point." The logic, she said, is that the scientist is already being supported, and there are many other projects with little to no support. In Fiscal Year 2007, the NSF funded less than 15% of reviewed proposals, roughly 55 in total.
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Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 3

December 5, 2007

We all know that mis-quotes, partial quotes, and quotes out of context are useful journalistic devices for disseminating misinformation. While McCook's blog was fun, some parts of it are -- how shall I put it politely? -- um, er, inaccurate. \n\n1. Barak is quoted as saying that, in fy 2007, NSF funded roughly 55 reviewed proposals. Since NSF's budget is several billion (with a "b") dollars a year, either that's a whopper of a misquote, or else the NSF is handing out a precious few whopper-sized grants. What Barak actually said was that the NSF program she represented, "Cellular Systems Cluster," funded approximately 55 proposals in fy 2007. Titles and abstracts for those awards can actually be retrieved (not to mention counted!) from the NSF's FastLane website.\n\n2. Barak is quoted as saying that a scientist's other funding from another agency is taken as a "negative grounding point" -- I'm not sure what a "grounding point" is, and I'm sure Barak did not use that term, but it's important to add that Barak then went on to discuss circumstances under which an already-well-funded investigator might indeed receive a grant from her program (such as a high-risk, high-reward, potentially transformative project that is unrelated to the already-funded projects in the proposer's lab). That is a very different take-home message than the impression left by McCook's blog.\n\n3. McCook wrote: "if health-related proposal has no larger impact (say, on teaching young scientists) she said, the agency will return it without review." I have no idea what this might mean, but I'm quite sure Barak didn't say that. What Barak did say is that an overtly disease-related proposal would be returned without review. In other comments that were quite unrelated to the topic of disease-relatedness, Barak mentioned NSF's two merit review critera of "intellectual merit" and "broader impact," the latter importantly including the integration of research with teaching among other things. \n\n4. I believe Barak made clear that one Directorate at NSF, the Directorate for Engineering, does provide support projects with disease-related goals so long as the project advances engineering at the same time. \n\n5. McCook's title, the omission of Barak's comments about biomedical engineering support at NSF, and the general tone of the blog suggest to me that McCook may be among those who feel that government support of biological research should only be used for research that benefits society in clearly discernible ways, among which would of course be the curing of diseases. This is an understandable opinion, one that is undoubtedly held by many. In counterargument, I can only offer this: in order to cure diseases, or to make other discoveries of direct benefit to humankind, there needs to be a substantial foundation of fundamental knowledge and understanding of how nature actually works, so that the more applied research endeavors can draw from that knowledge and understanding. The National Science Foundation's support of biological science hopefully will provide exactly that kind of fundamental base of knowledge and understanding which can then be drawn upon not only for disease-relevant research but also for myriad other societal benefits.\n\n6. McCook's quote of Barak's use of the word "extremely" is completely accurate; McCook's description of Barak's pronounciation of the word, and the chuckles it caused among some in the audience, left this reader chuckling in turn. \n\nI am grateful for the opportunity to set the record straight. \n\nFinally, to those readers who might recognize my writing style, I do hereby confess my identity: I am Barak.\n

December 6, 2007

Yes, I ran into this issue in the past with NSF and I think it is useful to make people aware. There is often a big difference between the way a scientist thinks about their research and how they explain it to funding agencies, other researchers or the public.

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Mettler Toledo
BD Biosciences
BD Biosciences