Washington Update

National Science Foundation Discusses “No Deadline” Grant Application Process and Other Policy Matters

By: Benjamin Krinsky
Thursday, April 26, 2018

On April 2-3, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Advisory Committee for the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) met at NSF headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, to discuss a range of scientific and policy topics with staff from across the agency.

Because of many new committee members, agency staff used several of the sessions to provide an overview of the research that BIO funds and highlight new opportunities for BIO to support interdisciplinary research. BIO Acting Assistant Director Joanne Tornow, PhD, opened with a summary of BIO’s major research and education programs and made special note of the agency’s updated sexual harassment policies.

As stated in the February 8 announcement, the agency has developed a new policy that will require grantee organizations to report findings of sexual or other harassment involving the grant’s principal investigator(s) or others funded by the grant. The new policy specifies that NSF will take action to ensure the safety of all grant personnel.

Many of the meeting’s scientific conversations revolved around “Understanding the Rules of Life,” a conceptual framework for life science research and one of the “Ten Big Ideas” being emphasized by the agency. Committee members and assistant directors from the NSF Directorates discussed how to foster new research directions. For example, further collaboration between BIO and the Directorate for Engineering will continue to advance synthetic biology and environmental engineering.

The committee spent a considerable amount of time on other policy areas. In response to a memorandum from the Office of Management and Budget, the agency is undertaking a program called “Renewing NSF.” This initiative emphasizes four main areas to improve agency operations: revamping information technology systems, adapting NSF’s workforce to the work at hand, streamlining and standardizing programs and processes, and expanding partnerships.

In addition to an overview of the “renewing” initiative, committee members heard a presentation on specific agency efforts to expand partnerships. NSF’s agency-wide goal is growing the number of partnerships five percent by the end of fiscal year 2019, expanding collaboration with other federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, industry, and international scientific partners.

NSF staff also updated the committee on the switch to “no deadlines” for BIO grant applications. Starting with a new round of funding solicitations this summer, researchers will no longer have a specified deadline for applications. Instead, the agency will review applications on a rolling basis throughout the year.

The goals of this switch, supported by the results of two pilot “no-deadline” NSF programs, include reducing agency staff workload, giving more flexibility to investigators, and increasing interdisciplinary research opportunities.  As before, proposals will be reviewed through a combination of in-person merit review panels and written “ad hoc” reviews. Agency staff emphasized their dedication to ensuring that all proposals are treated fairly, as well as the need to provide timely feedback and decisions.

Though generally enthusiastic about no deadlines, the committee raised concerns about the policy change. Agency staff clarified that the switch only applies to BIO and not to proposals funded through other directorates. Committee members also expressed reservations about how the policy might be handled by university offices of sponsored programs, which may impose their own internal application deadlines and thus obviate the the new NSF policy. NSF staff noted that several details are still being worked out; in particular, the agency is working to develop rules for resubmission in the new, no deadline scenario.