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

Alison McCook
Dec 3, 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...
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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