Science reports on an NSF survey of grant applicants and reviewers that enjoyed a 56% response rate. Since 2000, the NSF has increased its award size by 34%, which in turn consumed an additional 44% of the budget. A combination of larger awards and more applications (up 47% since 2000) lowered the success rate from 30% to 21%. Interestingly, they do not think NIH applicants are turning to the NSF as an alternative source for funding. Like the NIH, however, the NSF is having trouble signing up reviewers, with one in six begging off due to insufficient time.
My favorite graphic is the one showing that reviewers think their own proposals, unlike those submitted by the great unwashed masses, represent transformative research. Also enjoyed the survey respondent snapshot drawn up by Science:
“Sent last fall to everyone who submitted a research proposal to NSF in the past 3 years (more than half were also reviewers), the survey also paints a picture of the typical applicant. He’s someone (three-fourths are men) who underestimates his chances of success but would have a go regardless of the odds. He needs the money primarily to keep his lab intact and is prepared to try and try again if his initial application is rejected. He’s reviewed up to a half-dozen proposals for NSF in the past 12 months, sometimes cutting corners, and thinks that few contain potentially transformative ideas. Yet he believes his own research, if funded, stands a good chance of shattering the existing paradigm in the field.”
Thankfully, NSF funds the sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists who could have a field day with these findings.