Washington Update

NSF Committee Discusses New Grant Solicitations and Other Policy, Scientific Matters

By: Benjamin Krinsky
Thursday, October 18, 2018

On September 20-21, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Advisory Committee (AC) for the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) met at NSF headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, addressing a range of topics with both agency staff and visiting scientific experts.

The BIO Directorate’s “no deadlines” grant submission policy has been officially implemented and was a major topic of discussion. Investigators may now submit their proposals to any core BIO program at any time.

But BIO has imposed certain limits on the number and types of grant submissions: a PI or co-PI may only submit one grant proposal to each of the BIO research divisions (Integrative and Organismal SystemsEnvironmental BiologyMolecular and Cellular Biosciences) during a given fiscal year. In addition, a PI or co-PI may submit one proposal per fiscal year under the cross-divisional “Rules of Life” program. These limits do not apply to investigators who participate as non-Co-PI leads of sub-awards or as Other Senior Personnel.

The submission rules differ slightly for Division of Biological Infrastructure funding, which has been reorganized under two solicitations: Infrastructure Capacity for Biology and Infrastructure Innovation for Biological Research. Under the new rules, a PI or co-PI is limited to two proposal submissions to these programs.

NSF staff updated the committee on the agency’s sexual harassment policies. Bob Cosgrove, Compliance Program Manager in the NSF Office of Diversity and Inclusion, summarized the new term and condition entitled “Notification Requirements Regarding Findings of Sexual Harassment, Other Forms of Harassment, or Sexual Assault,” effective October 21, 2018. The overview also included information about NSF’s new web pages that provide information and resources related to agency efforts for ensuring that research and learning environments are harassment-free.

Under the new term and condition, NSF staff seeks to partner with institutions to implement the policy. In cases where sanctions might be warranted, NSF would not take unilateral action to immediately revoke grant funding as a first step. This clarification was offered out of concern that such unilateral actions could have unintended and harmful consequences; for example, depriving students or postdocs of funding should a PI award be terminated.

On the topic of diversity and inclusion, The BIO AC heard an update on Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering (CEOSE) activities. Summaries of the Committee’s three recent biennial reports to Congress, the most recent covering activities from 2015-2016, were presented. A major theme was the concept of accountability: creating effective incentives for scientists and institutions to broaden participation in science and engineering by underrepresented groups. Going forward, NSF will focus its efforts on broadening participation through the NSF INCLUDES program and other Big Ideas that are framing cross-foundation research and education activities.

Regarding new scientific initiatives, the Committee was brought up to date on the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). NEON is an unprecedented BIO investment in large-scale scientific infrastructure, comprising instruments and equipment that collect environmental data at 81 field sites (47 terrestrial, 34 aquatic) across the country. NEON construction is nearly complete and the project has entered its operational phase. Data generated at these sites is free and publicly accessible via the project’s website.

BIO AC members also discussed specific ways the BIO Directorate might participate in the agency-wide Big Ideas. In addition to the natural connections between BIO-funded research and Rules of Life and Harnessing the Data Revolution ideas, committee members discussed possible research directions in two other areas.

Related to the Navigating the New Arctic program, AC members raised a range of biological questions to explore in arctic ecosystems, as well as opportunities for scientific collaborations with other agencies (such as the National Institutes of Health) to understand pathogen emergence in warming ecosystems.

For Quantum Leap: Leading the Next Quantum Revolution, AC members discussed life science research directions involving quantum mechanics, including quantum-level phenomena such as animal vision, photosynthesis , and the biochemical/biophysical behavior of biological molecules.