Washington Update

NSF BIO Advisory Committee Discusses Impact of COVID-19 on Workforce and Merit Review

By: Yvette Seger
Thursday, April 22, 2021

On April 15 – 16, the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Biological Sciences (BIO) Directorate Advisory Committee convened to hear updates on a range of topics, including strategies taken to alleviate the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the NSF-supported research community and a discussion of the benefits and challenges of merit review in an all-virtual format.

Joanne Tornow, PhD, BIO Assistant Director, opened the meeting by providing information on recent and planned activities within the directorate. This included highlighting funds allocated to NSF as part of the traditional appropriations process and the American Rescue Plan passed earlier this year. A key area of concern for NSF is the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on researchers at key stages of their education or professional progress, namely undergraduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and early- and mid-career faculty. A February 11, 2021 Dear Colleague Letter highlighted specific programmatic updates to serve these populations.

Recognizing that postdoctoral scholars have been particularly vulnerable, BIO nearly doubled funding for the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program in fiscal year (FY) 2020 and plans to maintain that level of support in FY 2021. Funding to allow current fellows to extend their fellowship for an additional year was also provided. BIO also plans to sustain the increases in support for the Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) awards introduced in FY 2020 for FY 2021. A new solicitation, LEAding Culture Change Through Professional Societies or LEAPS, seeks to tap into the networking and convening power of professional societies to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in science.

Program Directors from three BIO Divisions highlighted the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on another core function – merit review of grant applications. The switch to all-virtual panels in March 2020 was the second significant change in the merit review process in as many years, as BIO implemented its no deadline policy for applications in 2019. Combined, these changes led to panels reviewing a smaller number of proposals but covering a wider range of topics. Post-panel surveys indicate that the majority of panelists had a positive experience with the virtual review and approximately half wanted an option for virtual participation even when in-person review resumes. Key benefits included ability to recruit more diverse panelists, a more flexible schedule, and reduced panel costs, but panelists did note missing the more interactive discussions and networking with colleagues and NSF staff that occurs at in-person meetings. Panelists also acknowledged difficulty in maintaining focus and engagement in an extended virtual meeting. Regardless of the challenges of the past year, all three Program Directors indicated that the quality of the panel discussions remains high and is important for informing funding decisions.