A Funding Reboot

Scientists ask the NSF to reconsider a granting mechanism they say could hurt junior faculty.

By | September 5, 2012

image: A Funding Reboot The National Science Foundation Building located in Arlington, VA The National Science Foundation Building located in Arlington, VA Wikimedia Commons, The National Science Foundation

More than 550 frustrated ecologists and evolutionary biologists sent a letter to the National Science Foundation (NSF) last week, blasting the agency’s new grant proposal process. The letter claimed the new process slows the progress of science, places young faculty in peril, and hinders collaborative projects; NSF officials said the old process was broken.

The new process, announced in 2011 for the environmental biology and integrative organizational systems divisions of NSF, cuts the number of grant cycles per year from two to one, and limits the number of proposals each scientist can submit to two. Now, scientists can submit up to two 4-page pre-proposals in January, and NSF reviewers invite a fraction of those to submit a full 15-page proposal in August.

In addition to fewer opportunities to submit proposals, receive feedback, and contribute to collaborative proposals, scientists worry that long gaps in funding—successful researchers will see funding roughly a year after they submit their pre-proposal—could cripple junior faculty. For a large majority of scientists that have to resubmit the following January, it would be a minimum of 2 years before they get funding, a considerable amount of time for faculty closing in on tenure evaluations.

“You can have full research programs go under in 2 years,” an anonymous professor of evolutionary biology, who blogs under the name Prof-Like Substance, told The Chronicle of Higher Education (for an article written by this reporter).

According to officials at the NSF, the changes were necessary, due to the fact that proposal submissions have jumped 40 percent in the past decade without significant increases in the federal budget. In a statement released to The Chronicle, NSF officials wrote, “such increases generated a significant burden on NSF staff and external reviewers.”

But John C. Wingfield, associate director of the NSF Directorate for Biological Sciences, told The Chronicle that the changes in the proposal process are a “work in progress.” The NSF is collecting data on the first cycle, he said, which it will post online and use to inform discussions with scientists on improving the system.  “I think there are some fairly obvious tweaks that we can make quickly,” he said. The welfare of junior faculty, he added, is a top priority.

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