IMPORTANT: Revised NSF-wide Proposal & Award Policies effective Dec 26, 2014


The main document describing NSF proposal policies has been updated and goes into effect on Dec. 26; see the revised Proposal & Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG), NSF 15-1 here.

This document includes both the familiar Grant Proposal Guide (aka “the GPG” that describes the general rules of NSF funding opportunities) and the Award Administration Guide (guidance mainly for your research administrators).

It is important for your research administrators to be up to date on these changes because this revision includes extensive changes regarding budgets, budget justifications, and award administration; these reflect a government-wide update of grant rules called Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles, and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards (Uniform Guidance; 2 CFR § 200).

Several changes do directly impact proposal writing and decision-making by the reviewing program. These updated rules apply to January, 2015 DEB preliminary proposals except where the DEB Core Programs solicitation (NSF 15-500) describes a specific departure from the GPG rules. The purpose of a solicitation such as DEB Core Programs is to specify proposal requirements that differ from the general GPG rules.

The PAPPG document includes a by-chapter summary of the changes in the Introduction section, you are encouraged to check them out, discuss, and send questions our way. In the meantime, we’ve noted a select few items that may be of particular interest to you as a PI:

 

Section F, NSF Electronic Capabilities Modernization Status, is an entirely new section of the PAPPG Introduction. It was developed to assist the community as NSF transitions our electronic capabilities to Research.gov. The referenced matrix will be updated as appropriate, independent of the annual release of the PAPPG revision cycle. The current version is located at: http://www.nsf.gov/bfa/dias/policy/estatus_matrix/dec14.pdf.

What this means: There’s a long-term plan to move most of our electronic interfaces away from FastLane to Research.gov, where you now submit annual and final reports. The linked document gives a quick overview of the different functions and where they can be found today: it should be kept up-to-date in the future.

 

Chapter I.F., When to Submit Proposals, includes revisions to the section on Special Exceptions to NSF’s Deadline Date Policy. In cases of natural or anthropogenic disasters, approval from the cognizant NSF Program Officer (PO) should be requested in advance of the proposal deadline, where possible. If proposers are unable to contact the PO prior to the deadline, approval should be obtained as soon as possible afterwards. New coverage has been added on the procedure to follow when NSF is closed due to inclement weather or other reasons.

What this means: The rules now clearly state what the options and procedures are when you can’t submit because of a disaster at your location or at NSF.

 

Chapter II.C.2.d, Project Description, has been updated to reflect that the project description must now contain, as a separate section within the narrative, a section labeled “Broader Impacts of the Proposed Work”.

What this means: This is a further elaboration of the rule that went into effect last year requiring a separate Broader Impacts section within the Project Description. Now the GPG specifies a standard label for the section. The standard label is required for DEB full proposals because those follow the GPG for the Project Description. The standard label is allowable but not required for Preproposals because the DEB Core Program solicitation already suggests a shorter section label, “Broader Impacts”.

 

Chapter II.C.2.d(iii), Results from Prior NSF Support, has been clarified to state that the listing of publications resulting from an NSF award must provide a complete bibliographic citation for each publication in either the Results from Prior NSF Support section or in the References Cited section of the proposal.

What this means: This does not affect DEB Preproposals because our solicitation states that results from prior support are not required at this stage (but you can include them if you wish). This does affect full proposals where the PI(s) have had prior support. Given the space limitations in the Project Description, we expect most of you will include these full references in the References Cited section rather than sacrifice narrative lines.

 

Chapter II.C.2.f, Biographical Sketch(es), makes clear that including personal information in the biographical sketch is not appropriate nor is it relevant to the merits of the proposal. New information is being requested in Section II.C.2.f.(i)(a), Professional Preparation. The location of the individual’s undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral institution(s) must be provided. Section II.C.2.f.(i)(e) clarifies that the total number of collaborators and co-editors, and graduate advisors and postdoctoral sponsors, must be identified in the appropriate areas in the Collaborators & Other Affiliations section. In addition, where applicable, information on “Other Personnel” biographical information (Section II.C.2.f.(ii)) should be clearly identified and uploaded in the Biosketches section of the proposal.

What this means: Some parts of the biosketch have been revised, like the listing of where you trained, please heed these details. However, the GPG still does not address the issue of long lists of collaborators. But don’t worry for your preproposals, the variance in our solicitation that puts the collaborators & other affiliations list in a separate document applies here.

 

Chapter II.D.11, Proposals for Doctoral Dissertation Research, has been removed, as information should be obtained from the cognizant program office and via the NSF website.

What this means: Only a few places in NSF make DDIGs, since in most cases this option doesn’t apply they have cut it from the general rules. We still have our DDIG solicitation in DEB and are proud of it. We’ve got no plans to change that.

 

Chapter IV.B, Proposal Not Accepted or Returned Without Review, informs proposers that a proposal will not be accepted or will be returned without review by NSF for the reasons listed in that section. Previously the language used was “may” not be accepted or “may” be returned without review.

What this means: FastLane will now be doing more (but not all) checks to ensure the required pieces of a proposal are included and will not allow submission without them, hence “Not Accepted”. In addition, Return Without Review will be a required action following a decision about certain types of non-compliance; this addresses potential inconsistencies in responses across programs.

How to win over panels and influence program officers: advice for effective written reviews.


For a while now we’ve been pondering how to approach a delicate subject: writing reviews. This subject is something of a minefield of tensions, conflicts, opinions, and opportunities to offend, alienate, and otherwise ruffle feathers by implying, “you’re doing it wrong.” So we feel it is important to explain here why we are tackling this topic and mention some of the approaches that didn’t fly.

We receive requests from less experienced reviewers who want advice outside the trial-by-fire of an actual panel to hone their review-writing skills. And we also hear from PIs who are disappointed in the utility or quality of the reviews they have received.

To set the tone, let’s make a couple of blanket statements straight off. You are all volunteers in this effort and you do a great job and deserve immense gratitude. With that said, probably every established PI who has submitted NSF proposals has received at least one review that was… a bit less than they expected; perhaps lacking a certain degree of usefulness; or even a complete enigma.

What is going on with these sub-par reviews? Well, it’s difficult to address because we don’t think there is a singular problem. Simply put, in managing the whirlwind of research life, we may occasionally fall short in creating the ideal, critical, insightful and helpful proposal review.

Why are we addressing this here? There is quite a bit out there about writing manuscript reviews, and even some nice posts about PIs coming to grips with the reviews received. But there’s a pretty big void when it comes to discussion of actually writing proposal reviews. As a program office, we have a unique platform to start a discussion around review expectations and feel it is a topic worth talking about openly. What we hope to achieve is not a static prescription for a “good review” but for this to start a discussion, raising community awareness about the importance of proposal reviews and the need for continual improvement in writing them, regardless of how well we think we’re doing already.

Some things we ARE NOT going to do here:

  • We are not going to provide you with real review examples. That would break confidentiality; even with names stripped someone might recognize the writing enough to correctly (or worse, incorrectly) ascribe the writing to an individual with unintended consequences.
  • We are not going to provide you with fictional examples. There are many different ways that a review can be good or bad in the broad sense but it’s not clear that an example is needed to make the point. And, the finer points of a review often need the context of the full proposal to make sense and would therefore be lost in such an example.
  • We are not seeking to create a specific template for a written review. That already exists at a very basic level in the form you access via the FastLane review module. Different directorates, divisions, programs, and specific solicitations establish and enforce varied requirements and norms for reviews under the broad scope of the same FastLane form. There is no universal, detailed guide to review expectations and we don’t think it would be possible or wise to attempt one. Even within DEB, a single template would not work for all of our solicitations.

There are many paths to a good proposal review. But the major commonalities can be distilled into a few points.

Good proposal reviews:

  • are conceived with an open mind and reflect serious consideration of the proposal
  • make a compelling case for the evaluation, citing evidence or examples as needed
  • are well-written and direct
  • contain no ad hominem criticisms or unsupported assertions

Of course the real challenge is, “How do I do it?” To help out we’ve started a list (in step-wise order[i]) of tips to guide you past the most common pitfalls on the path to completing a great review.

  1. Refresh your expectations, EVERY TIME: You are asked to judge a proposal against a specific set of review criteria. These review criteria are not static. They change over time; some change almost yearly and may have changed since you last looked. They vary by organization; each successive layer of directorates, divisions, and programs has an opportunity to modify and specify review criteria; what you are asked to do in education or geosciences will differ in the specifics from what you are asked to do in DEB even though all still abide the NSF merit review criteria[ii]. They can be stacked and combined; even within a single panel some proposals will include additional review criteria relevant to a submission option or solicitation on top of those of the conceptual program at the heart of the proposal.

The best way to keep on top of this shifting body of expectations is to READ THE MATERIAL WE SEND YOU when you volunteer to review. Googling and looking through your own files can lead you to outdated information. In DEB, we send you a nicely packaged summary with the latest information and our interpretation of specific criteria all in one place with links to the source documents should you desire to read more.

  1. Recognize your audiences (yes, plural): You, as a reviewer are always writing for two, and potentially three, audiences. Firstly, the review is to inform us (NSF) as to why you think the proposal is or is not worth funding; we consider this in light of others’ reviews and our award portfolio to arrive at a funding recommendation. Secondly, the review is to help the PI learn how to prepare a better proposal next time, or to improve the project if it is funded. Lastly, the written review may be used as documentary evidence that you as the reviewer gave the proposal thorough and thoughtful consideration.
  2. Don’t summarize, review: Every audience for the review will also have access to the actual proposal and doesn’t need you to summarize it; we need your well-argued opinion of it. Note: Starting out with largely descriptive text may be important to organizing your thoughts as a reviewer. That’s ok. That’s great. But it’s not the end point. What we’re saying here is: take whatever part of the proposal you felt important enough to describe and fill it out by giving your opinion of it and telling us why you hold that opinion.
  3. Provide clear and substantiated comments: To satisfy the distinct audiences and avoid summarizing, every point you make in your review should exhibit these 3 characteristics:
    1. It is EVALUATIVE
    2. It is SUPPORTED with appropriate details, evidence, and comparisons
    3. It provides CONSTRUCTIVE feedback in the context of the proposal

Notes: EVALUATIVE means using terms that express an opinion about the subject like “good”, “bad”, “excellent”, “inadequate”, “exemplary”, “satisfactory”, etc. SUPPORTED means following the evaluative term with an explanation like “because the [specific information in the proposal] is/is not reflective of [some important external knowledge like cited literature, best practice, or other relevant information].”

  1. Be self-critical of your critical comments: A good critical comment delves below the surface of your initial reaction and constructively reflects the opportunities and constraints for addressing the issue. This step could easily be its own separate post; we’ll provide a longer discussion of this at a later date. For now though, the fast summary is: see the flaws, point them out but give them context, and don’t get hung up on small stuff. Stop and ask: why is it a flaw for this proposal? Do I fault others for this consistently? If not, why have I pointed it out now? Is there a deeper cause of this flaw that I can describe? (If so, do it.) Search out your biases. Recognize and differentiate between actual problems in the proposal and legitimate differences from how you would do the work. Make sure your suggestions for improvement are clear and reflect the constraints on space: it’s limited, and PIs can’t include “more” material on X without cutting Y. A useful suggestion needs to identify both the X that needs expansion and the Y that could stand to be cut.
  2. Minimize or omit purely descriptive text: This is a repeat of point 3. We’re serious about this. It is very easy to fall into the summarizing trap – it’s much easier to write that material – and we have to remind ourselves about this constantly too. If some aspect of the proposal is important enough for you to describe, tell us how it affects your overall opinion of the proposal and why.
  3. Use the FastLane review form boxes: The FastLane form has fields for your review of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts, and for a Summary. Use the first two to make your points (large and small, positive and negative) about the proposal. Use the summary box to explain how those points come together to form your overall opinion – reiterate the major deciding factors, explicitly note where you discount minor issues. This provides clarity for both NSF and the PI as to how the other comments translate into a single overall rating.

 

What other advice might you as a PI receiving a review want to give the reviewers? Is there a Golden Rule for review? If so, how could it be phrased?

Maybe some of our readers would be interested in trying to improvise a few “model review” lines, give it a go in the comments.

 

[i] Based on our general perception of where we get the most questions/complaints, tips 1, 4, 5, and 3 encompass the largest areas for improvement.

[ii] The current NSF merit review criteria are 2-fold (Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts), under each criterion NSF poses 5 questions to guide reviewers’ thinking (but does not require explicit answers to each):

  1. What is the potential for the proposed activity to:
  2. Advance knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields (for Intellectual Merit); or
  3. Benefit society or advance desired societal outcomes (for Broader Impacts)?
  4. To what extent do the proposed activities suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?
  5. Is the plan for carrying out the proposed activities well-reasoned, well-organized, and based on a sound rationale?
  6. How well qualified is the individual, team, or organization to conduct the proposed activities?
  7. Are there adequate resources available to the PI (either at the home organization or through collaborations) to carry out the proposed activities?

NSF Ebola RAPIDS: The DEB awards


The standard granting process at NSF typically takes between 8-12 months from the time a proposal is prepared until the time an award is made. Some situations, however, merit an urgent response to acquire critical data and test relevant hypotheses. NSF RAPID funding mechanisms accommodate this pressing need for high priority science.

In response to the unprecedented Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 and its appearance within the United States, the NSF Director France Córdova released a Dear Colleague Letter reminding our community of the RAPID funding mechanism and welcoming RAPID proposals with relevance to the current Ebola outbreak.

NSF received hundreds of inquiries about possible Ebola RAPIDs spanning numerous disciplines across the Foundation, including the Directorates for Engineering, Biological Sciences, and Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences. Several RAPID awards have already been made, some of which were awarded through the Division of Environmental Biology.

The DEB RAPID awards range from investigations of the environmental persistence of Ebola virus on common household surfaces and in the environment, to mathematical modeling of asymptomatic Ebola infections and potential public health interventions. The DEB RAPIDs address significant gaps in knowledge on the basic characteristics and behavior of the Ebola virus. This funded research will advance our understanding of Ebola virus in the environment and will have immediate relevance and application to the current outbreak.

 

See the links below for specific information on the DEB funded RAPID awards:

Alison Galvani from Yale University (NSF 1514673)

RAPID: Optimal allocation of both non-pharmaceutical and pharmaceutical interventions toward controlling Ebola transmission in West Africa

This research will develop a novel mathematical model to evaluate the effectiveness of existing interventions for curtailing disease transmission. They will use tracing data for cases and case contacts. This model has the potential to offer real time disease forecasting.

Yoshihiro Kawaoka from University of Wisconsin, Madison (NSF 1514671)

RAPID: Ebola virus stability in the environment – Implications for outbreak control

The objective of this research is to investigate the environmental persistence of Ebola virus on various surface substrates and biological materials. There is scant information on the persistence of Ebola virus in the environment, particularly with exposure to outdoor climatic conditions.

Katriona Shea from Pennsylvania State University (NSF 1514704)

RAPID: Value of Information and Structured Decision-Making for Management of Ebola

This research will combine several current Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) models, in order to improve the modeling of the Ebola epidemic that began in 2014. The researchers propose to use simulations of alternative intervention strategies to quantify the effect of model uncertainty on decision-making. This approach will allow them to identify key sources of disagreement in several models and ultimately help to refine management recommendations.

Chick Macal from University of Chicago (NSF 1516428)

RAPID: Designing Ebola Interventions for Large Urban Areas through Agent-Based Modeling and Network Analysis

This research will generate network models of the spread of Ebola virus. The models will incorporate two classes of complex human behaviors – evolving self-knowledge and response to interventions and messaging.

More links will be added as awards go live.

DEB Holiday Housekeeping Post: Update and Reminders


Fall Panel Update, for those of you wondering about the full proposal panel results:

We’ve finished with panels in DEB. Programs are developing their awarding priorities under significant continued budget uncertainty. We are prioritizing decline notices in order to inform potential revisions and resubmissions. You should start seeing these notices in the next few weeks. Since we don’t yet have funds with which to make most awards, even though we hope to make as many awards as last year, that good news will be somewhat delayed while we await a final operating budget.

 

Supplement Reminder:

Education and Broadening Participation supplements are due December 2. Do you still have your reminder letter from back in October? If you’ve misplaced it, the guidance for these supplements is also online, here: http://www.nsf.gov/bio/deb/suppopp.jsp.

 

January Preliminary Proposal Reminders:

Be sure to follow the current solicitation for your January preliminary proposals:

DEB Core Programs (NSF 15-500): http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2015/nsf15500/nsf15500.htm.

Long Term Research in Environmental Biology (LTREB) (NSF 15-503): http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2015/nsf15503/nsf15503.htm.

These solicitations are mostly the same as last year; however, a few small changes can be critically important for your submissions.

Please read the solicitation for specifics. Here we’ve provided some additional commentary to the items listed in “Revision Notes” at the start of the solicitation:

Updates instructions for the submission by email of a “Consolidated Personnel List.”

This requires a change in practice. The template file has been revised. There is a new email address for submitting the file. This was done to eliminate confusion in the file naming.

Adds language describing review of international collaborations with NERC (UK) and BSF (Israel).

This added language incorporates new references to international collaborative funding opportunities (UK and Israel) available under this solicitation but does not require any additional action unless proposers are seeking to follow this route.

Provides updated instructions for submission of Research in Undergraduate Institutions (RUI) proposals.

These details have been updated to reflect revisions to the NSF-wide RUI solicitation related to submission instructions for full proposals. These changes affect only invited full RUI proposals.

Updates instructions for the submission of a combined “Collaborators & Other Affiliations” document.

These clarifications do not alter past practices. Additional wording was added to pinpoint where to upload this file within the proposal preparation module and in response to frequent questions about format.

Clarifies requirements for exercising a preliminary proposal bypass or full proposal deferral.

These clarifications do not alter past practices. Wording was added to increase transparency and improve understanding.

Clarifies requirements in the preliminary proposal related to: inclusion of results from prior support, project summary length, and format of the project description.

These clarifications do not alter past practices. Additional wording was added in response to frequent questions about proposal content limits and requirements.

Clarifies guidance for making changes between invitation and full proposal submission

These clarifications do not alter past practices. Additional wording was added in response to frequent questions about changes to project details versus changes to personnel.

Discussion Thread: DEBrief content suggestions


Frequent visitors may have noticed that we’ve added star-based rating options to all of our posts. We’re hoping for a little more input from you as to what you want to see on this blog. Our blog site stats are interesting in that some of the DEB Numbers posts tend to get the most views and shares, but individual DEB Program Officer profiles seem to be popular among searches that lead people to this site. So we are wondering, what information are readers finding useful? What is working? What is missing? What could we be doing better or differently?

The stars are a chance to continuously make your preferences known without writing a comment (and we hope you’ll look back and rate your past favorites too).

But, this post is dedicated to open discussion about the blog and DEB communications in general. Are there timely topics you haven’t seen covered? Are there questions you’ve been hoping we will address? You’ve clearly found this blog, but what about your friends and colleagues in DEB fields? Have you shared us with them?

Comments can be anonymous and don’t require any identifiers from you, but if you don’t want other visitors to see a comment, you can always send it directly to DEBQuestions@nsf.gov.

 

Reminder: We’re also interested in hearing about your results that didn’t seem to fit in or  came about after the end of your official project reports.

Meet DEB: Kelly Zamudio, SBS Program Officer


Basic Profile

Name: Kelly R. Zamudio

I study the evolutionary diversification of frogs in the Atlantic Coastal Forest of Brazil, a biodiversity hotspot.

I study the evolutionary diversification of frogs in the Atlantic Coastal Forest of Brazil, a biodiversity hotspot.

Education: B.A. University of California, Berkeley; Ph.D. University of Washington, Seattle

Home Institution: Cornell University

Research Experience/History: I work on diversification and conservation of vertebrate lineages, and have particular interests in historical processes promoting the origin of biodiversity. I am also interested in the emergence of infectious diseases in wildlife. More on my research program can be found at my Cornell website.

NSF Experience/History: I am a rotating Program Director in DEB, in the Systematics and Biodiversity Studies Cluster. Before starting my position here I served on panels for Dimensions of Biodiversity, Evolutionary Processes, AToL, and provided ad hoc reviews for multiple clusters in DEB. I also participated in post-doctoral panels a couple times.

The spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) is one of the species I study. I am interested in mate choice in this species and how that maintains diverse lineages throughout the species' range.

The spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) is one of the species I study. I am interested in mate choice in this species and how that maintains diverse lineages throughout the species’ range.

Competitions I currently work on: Systematic And Biodiversity Science core competitions (both full proposals and DDIGs), Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease, and Dimensions of Biodiversity.

Q & A

Biggest surprise you’ve encountered coming to DEB from the academic world:

More than anything else I have been surprised by the complexity of the Foundation, and how all the offices have to fit and work together to fund excellent, interdisciplinary, and cross-cutting science. In addition to the science and education directorates, there are offices that work on legislative and public affairs issues, offices that oversee grant management, offices that interface with congress to get our budget in and approved. This takes a huge number of people with a vast array of expertise. Every one of them works to get research dollars from Congress and in to your research accounts.

One thing you wished more people understood about DEB and why:

I wish more people realized that DEB is composed of a group of service-oriented science advocates. The feeling I get here in the Division is that we all feel a great responsibility for doing a good job at funding basic science, for identifying the fields and ideas that should be encouraged to develop, and for keeping our community of bio researchers active. The National budget, and the current funding regime make that job painfully difficult sometimes, because we all know that we could do so much more for science with more money. A previous program officer summed it up perfectly when she said: “DEB: a smart group of people, all the right intentions, and not enough money”. My experience here has made me realize the importance of communicating your science to those holding the funding purse strings (very few of us do that enough). It has also reinforced my perception that if you complain about DEB and NSF, you should probably do some service here, and contribute yourself to the improvement of our system.

What would someone find you doing in your down time?

Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis is a fungal pathogen that causes chytridiomycosis in frogs, and has resulted in population declines and loss of frog biodiversity worldwide.

Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis is a fungal pathogen that causes chytridiomycosis in frogs, and has resulted in population declines and loss of frog biodiversity worldwide.

I am making a point of using my time here to take in all that DC has to offer. I try to visit one museum, monument, or special DC place each weekend. I have not done it yet – but before my time here is up, you can bet I will take a Segway tour of the National Mall!

Where should someone go to eat when they visit NSF?

Food trucks! They line up outside of NSF on N. Stuart St. Everyday there are at least 4-5 varied and delicious options. I recommend La Tingeria for Mexican, Brandon’s Little Truck for gourmet sandwiches, Pho Wheels for Vietnamese Pho, and ArepaZone for Venezuelan Arepas.

Think of it as “surprise@lunchtime”—you never know who will be out there… what will it be today?

 

Postdoctoral Research Fellowships Using Biological Collections


The Directorate for Biological Sciences (NSF/BIO)  has announced a new funding opportunity within the Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in Biology (PRFB) program for researchers who have or will soon complete their Ph.D. The revised PRFB solicitation now includes a new Competitive Area: Postdoctoral Research Fellowships Using Biological Collections.

The program seeks to build on the growth in availability of biological collections. This track seeks applicants who will use biological collection data in innovative ways to address grand challenges in biology. Of specific interest are research plans that extend outside biology to other sciences.

PRFB is hosted within the Division of Biological Infrastructure (BIO/DBI). The new solicitation can be found at: http://www.nsf.gov/publications/pub_summ.jsp?WT.z_pims_id=503622&ods_key=nsf15501.

To be eligible an applicant must not have served in any position that requires the doctoral degree, for more than 6 full time months. The full proposal deadline is January 8, 2015 and the first Tuesday in November, including 2015, thereafter.

Continuing from prior years, other Competitive Areas in the postdoctoral fellowship program are (1) broadening participation of under-represented groups in biology and (2) the National Plant Genome Initiative.