I’m hearing a lot about NSF BIO’s new policy of one proposal per year for each Principal Investigator. In general, I’m hearing complaints from more senior investigators and positive interest from younger ones. This is somewhat counter-intuitive for me since I’d expect junior PI’s to be quite anxious to get as many proposals as possible in within the time window of their tenure clock. But I suppose they also see this new policy as potentially reducing the competition from the old fogies (an aside, this is the same logic of those who rejoice when NSF or NIH have funding downturns because they see those as driving out the competition).
In any case, I’m agnostic about this. It is certainly good that NSF is discouraging the recycling of proposal failures. I find it annoying that I can only be PI on one proposal for the coming year–although it will incentivize me to make it as excellent as possible. I do think that the rather negative report on this new policy in SCIENCE was insufficiently nuanced and would be happy to discuss with the reporter.
I thought today I would write down my thoughts on how I define broader impacts (BI) from an NSF perspective. First some background and a caveat: BI is one of two criteria that an NSF grant proposal is evaluated by (the other is intellectual merit). BI arrived at NSF as a criterion in 1996, but the notion really goes back to Vannevar Bush’s arguments for US R&D investments after the Second World War. You can read this in his report, Science The Endless Frontier, a response to a letter from President Roosevelt. And the caveat: I’m no longer with the NSF. But I was asked about this a lot when I visited panels and generally my response was as follows….
First, probably the most important BI from my point of view is to communicate the intellectual merit of the proposed science in plain language that the lay public (and especially Congressional stakeholders) can understand. Even the title of a proposal can be thought of as part of this kind of BI. Far too often, proposers fall back on the pithy titles that are both humorous (to colleagues) and grab the attention of journal editors at places like Science or Nature. Bad idea. From the taxpayer standpoint, the case for the science needs to be sober and cogent.
But this notion of communication extends to the entire BI component of the proposal: a central broader impact is that the general public understands why the proposed science is worthy of investment. So public science communication as part of the BI is an extremely worthwhile activity–as long as it scales. What I mean by this is that if you are communicating the intellectual merit of your science in lay language, make sure to use a medium that reaches a lot of people.
Another excellent BI is to broaden participation (BP) in scientific research. Under-represented minorities and women are often discouraged from careers in science during K-12, but also later during undergraduate training. BP activities that are integral to proposals are definitely responsive to the BI criterion. But here again, they have to scale. Often proposers make the mistake of prioritizing novelty of approach at the expense of scale. If your institution is already actively and successfully engaged in a BP activity, consider, aligning your proposed BI to what is already on-going at your campus. Not only is that efficient use of scarce funds, but it also has the advantage of scaling beyond your own lab or field site.
Finally, understand that the basic big idea behind BI is that scientific research can have dual use: it can increase our knowledge about the universe around us and it can benefit society. BI is about explicitly making that connection clear.
Which means the lobby and elevators are jammed first thing in the morning. But it also means that community members are coming together to perform the lynchpin function in the merit review process–in my opinion this peer review has been critical to the empirical success of the NSF since it’s founding in the early 1950’s.
Which brings me to the point of this blogpost: I think that where appropriate from the standpoint of expertise, more deans, provosts and even university presidents should participate in NSF panels. I think this would help them hone the qualities of “scientific taste” that they need for recruitment, retention and even promotion and tenure processes. I know, that during my sixteen year tenure in a decanal position at George Mason, serving on many NSF panels helped me a great deal in building out a high-performing faculty team at my academic unit. Of course, there will be conflicts of interest for proposals from one’s home institution and administrators would have to recuse themselves from those discussions and decisions.
So, right now this blog is private because I’m very much in the public eye. But one day, when I return to academia, it’ll go public again. So I’ve decided to start writing again today.
Yes, running BIO at NSF is the most challenging job I’ve ever had in my life. I find myself working at, our beyond the level of intensity of my years in grad school in Ann Arbor. The high points are incredible. The low points are devastating. I certainly didn’t expect this type of life for my sixties.
Writing is like exercising. I’m out of practice. So it’ll be slow. But I’m ready to go ahead again.
Story from ScienceInsider is here. Short version: Congressional authorizers want to shrink what appropriators have already passed–a world turned upside down.
Apparently the scientific community is up in arms about the notion, story here. Note that my home town, Arlington Virginia is the current home of AFOSR. Interestingly NSF is apparently leaving their current HQ in Arlington for a further out location in Alexandria in several years. Might DARPA and ONR be next?
So I think the real story is about the nexus of these current federal research agencies dispersing. For years, they’ve essentially been ‘across the street’ from one another. Arlington has thrived, and many universities (including my own) have presences in Arlington to be close to the action.
Latest survey of federal workplaces is here. My former employer, the NIH, took a nasty dive this time. NSF went up and NASA is at the top of the heap.
I remember my years at the NIH as terrific, but that was long before 9/11 and construction of the big security fence around campus.
Money quote from ScienceInsider:
factors include a continued pay freeze, a 30% cut in travel budgets, and the elimination of a pot of money for year-end bonuses for exceptional service
I’d say the transformation of NIH from an open campus (really similar to a large university) to secured compound is also part of the problem.