Archive for NSF Info

Questions Answered & Discussions Held –>

Greetings – for those of you arriving at the blog via the main writedit link, please refer to the NIH Paylines & Resources and Discussion: NIH Scores-Paylines-Policy-Peer Review pages (at the top of the right column of this blog) to ask questions (and have them answered relatively quickly, if not same day), learn from the experiences of fellow researchers (especially timelines of grant application submission, review, and award), and discuss issues related to the NIH and NIH funding.

Although I am much less engaged with the NSF now than in the past, I am happy to consider queries about their grant process at the Discussion: All Things NSF page as well.

Also, I will be overhauling How the NIH Can Help You Get Funded, so if you have suggestions for what would be useful to cover, please feel free to comment here or contact me me directly.

Thanks for all your support and contributions, and best wishes for success with your research and your grant applications!

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Action Plan for those Frustrated by Chaotic Funding of Biomedical Research

Today’s issue of Cell includes a commentary by Thomas Pollard (Yale) entitled, The Obligation for Biologists to Commit to Political Advocacy, in which he reviews why and how scientists “must take responsibility to convince politicians that funding biomedical research will benefit not only human health, but also our economic well being.” If nothing else, you will find a nice summary of how the sausage is made. Hopefully you will be inspired to act on what you learn.

In addition to the guidance given in the commentary, you might consider FASEB’s advocacy tools and advice to help you register your concerns with elected officials.

To improve your own funding situation, NEJM offers the advice to eat more chocolate as a path to Nobel laureateness.

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NIH & NSF Efforts to Redistribute the Wealth

Last week, the NIH announced pilot program in which IC Councils will conduct an extra review of competitively scored applications from PIs who currently receive $1.5M or more per year in total costs to determine if additional funds should be awarded (this roughly matches the long-standing NIGMS strategy of giving extra scrutiny to PIs receiving $750K or more in direct costs, assuming an average F&A rate of ~50%). The NIH is quick to note that this Special Council Review (SCR) does not represent a funding cap policy and that “some of the most productive investigators are leading significant research teams and programs that may require over $1.5 million/year of NIH awards to be sustained … [and] that some types of research, for example large complex clinical trials, may commonly trigger this review but may also be recommended for funding.” RFAs and big P program applications won’t receive extra review, and with multiple PI/PD submissions, each of the PIs would need to exceed the $1.5M threshold. This pilot effort was inspired by the discussion on how the NIH can best manage its limited resources … the interactive slide on RPG funding per PI indicates that 6% of PIs receive $1.5M or more per year, representing 28% of the RPG budget.

This week, Science reported on the Big Pitch experiment at the NSF (Molecular and Cellular Biosciences Division) in which two different review panels reviewed two different presentations of the same research. One panel received the full traditional proposals, while the other assessed anonymous 2-page summaries that focused on the underlying concept rather than experimental detail. Only 3 out of 55 proposals (in this pilot, on climate change) were rated highly by both review groups, and 2 of these were funded; altogether, the NSF funded 3 projects selected exclusively through the 2-p proposal and 5 through the full proposal reviews.

The experience of one of the anonymous 2-p awardees might ring true with many struggling PIs:

Shirley Taylor, an awardee during the evolution round of the Big Pitch, says a comparison of the reviews she got on the two versions of her proposal convinced her that anonymity had worked in her favor. An associate professor of microbiology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Taylor had failed twice to win funding from the National Institutes of Health to study the role of an enzyme in modifying mitochondrial DNA.

Both times, she says, reviewers questioned the validity of her preliminary results because she had few publications to her credit. Some reviews of her full proposal to NSF expressed the same concern. Without a biographical sketch, Taylor says, reviewers of the anonymous proposal could “focus on the novelty of the science, and this is what allowed my proposal to be funded.”

The Big Pitch format could “remove bias and allow better support of smaller, innovative research groups that otherwise might be overlooked,” Taylor adds. “The current system is definitely a ‘buddy system’ where it’s not what you know but who you know, where you work, and where you publish. And the rich get richer.”

A second round of Big Pitch (evolution proposals) had similar results, and the NSF is considering adding another arm to the experiment in which a third panel of reviewers receive both the short proposal and an abbreviated biosketch of the PI. They might also consider 4 rather than 2 pages for the concept proposal … and, apart from the anonymous review experiment, the MCB Division has limited the number of proposals a PI can submit, while Integrative Organismal Systems and Environmental Biology have implemented a pre-proposal policy (with submission of full proposals invited).

Small steps to address perceived inequity in funding decisions … looking forward to even more innovative, paradigm-shifting proposals.

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FY13 Budget Discussions Begin

The President’s FY13 budget proposal, which Republicans in Congress declared dead on arrival, should generally be of concern to those in biomedical research. The HHS Budget in Brief report euphemistically starts the section on the NIH budget (p 34) with:

The FY 2013 Budget requests $30.9 billion for the NIH, the same level as in FY 2012, reflecting the Administration’s priority to invest in innovative biomedical and behavioral research that spurs economic growth while advancing medical science.

Hmmm. Unless we are projected to have 0% inflation, this translates into a decrease, leaving some head-scratching about actual level of priority given here. Of course, the NIH budget hasn’t kept up with the pace of inflation for the last decade, so why start now.

The flat line does not extend across all ICs either. Only NINDS, NIAMS, NINR, and FIC remain unchanged from FY12 funding levels. NIGMS gives up the bonus $ appropriated to the IDeA program last year with a $48M drop, and the OD (Office of Director) loses $28M (from the National Children’s Study), with perhaps some of this going to NCATS, a clear winner in this budget proposal ($64M, of which $40M will go to CAN, the Cures Acceleration Network). Most other IC increases/decreases are in the $1-3M range, with a few exceptions: NIAID gains $10M, NEI loses $9M, and the NLM bumps up $8M.

Although the budget proposal shows RPG $ going down by $26M ($23M of this shifts to intramural & management budgets), the number of competing awards (Type 1/Type 2) will go up by 672, offset by the removal of 777 noncompeting renewals from the books. Guess not all these folks are among the happy competing renewal crowd. The allocation for research centers drops by $64M and for research training by $2M (but a 2% stipend increase for pre/postdocs). R&D contracts would see a $108M boost.

Just over half (53.3%) of the NIH budget goes to support extramural RPGs, and the NIH is squeezing each grant awarded harder to come up with enough cash to fund more applications, mainly by controlling average award size (target of $431M for FY13). The OER gave us a peak into what fiscal policies might be implemented to make dwindling dollars go farther (Sally Rockey just added a post about the belt-tightening measures in relation to the FY13 budget). A lower salary cap is already in place, shifting some of this burden to the awardee institutions. For all you basic science assistant professors, this doesn’t sound like much of a burden, but clinician scientists will have a harder sell asking to do research (net loss to their department) rather than see patients (net gain), particularly if academic medical centers must also absorb significant cuts in Medicare indirect medical education payments. As per fiscal policy in FY12, no inflationary increases will given to awardees. The budgets of all noncompeting renewals will be reduced by 1% below their FY12 budget. New for FY13 (regardless of what appropriation finally passes, no doubt in mid 2014) will be NIH-wide scrutiny of PIs receiving more than $1.5M in total costs annually prior to making additional awards (you may recall the Nature piece on the 22 big hitters or may have seen the recent story on “grandee grantees“, plus its informative comment by Jeremy Berg); some ICs have already done this, such as NIMH and NIGMS.

For those of you with more basic research interests, the NSF was the biggest science winner in the Administration’s budget blueprint, with a $340M increase that translates into 5.2% increase in research funding at the 6 science directorates and a 5.8% increase in the education directorate. FASEB spells out the 3% increase to the Biological Sciences Directorate:

BIO plans to focus on 5 Grand Challenges including “genomes to phenomes;” synthetic biology; neurosystems; Earth, climate, and biosphere; and biological diversity. Assistant Director John Wingfield, PhD also expressed a desire to increase collaboration, broaden participation, and improve public outreach.

Of course, it is hardly all over but the shoutin’. The shoutin’ hasn’t even begun …

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NSF Broader Impacts Broadened

UPDATE: According to Science Insider, in addition to not listing specific broader impacts, the NSB recommended in its report, NSF Merit Review Criteria: Review and Revisions, flexibility in how these are measured (and by whom):

NSB notes that assessing the effectiveness and impact of outcomes of these activities one project at a time may not be meaningful, particularly if the size of the activity is limited. Thus, assessing the effectiveness of activities designed to advance broader societal goals may best be done at a higher, more aggregated, level than the individual project. Large, campus-wide activities or aggregated activities of multiple PIs could lend themselves to assessment, which should be supported by NSF.

According to Mervis, the changes should be incorporated in the January 2013 version of the Grant Proposal Guide.

Last summer, NSF sought input on merit review criteria for intellectual merit and broader impacts. Nature News now reports that the task force assigned to tweaking these presented its final report, which “kept the wording for the two criteria essentially the same as before” (i.e., no list of specific activities), to the National Science Board, which is likely to approve the recommendations. Another good outcome: NSF Director Subra Suresh indicated that “One thing that remains to be done is finding the right balance in shouldering the responsibility of broader impacts between principal investigator and institution.” Here-here.

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NSF Program Announcements for Oncology & Health Services Research

So, whether they are feeling flush or a need to diversify further into the health sciences (e.g, PAR-10-141 and 142 and PAR-11-203), the NSF just released two interesting program announcements, Physical and Engineering Sciences in Oncology in partnership with NCI (Office of Physical Sciences-Oncology) and Advancing Health Services through System Modeling Research in partnership with AHRQ (Health Information Technology). However, neither the Biological Sciences Directorate nor the Divsions of Chemistry or Physics are participating in any of these initiatives.

The NSF also just released a new report, Rebuilding the Mosaic, on its priorities for social science research. Hot topics include population change, sources of disparity, communication-language-linguistics, and technology-new media-social networks.

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Budget Update … Good News For NSF (& their CREATIV use of these funds …)

Today the President should sign legislation continuing the CR through December 16 and … miracle of miracles … establish the FY12 appropriations for several federal agencies, including the NSF (p 246-249). In a burst of generosity, both chambers agreed on a 2.5% increase for the NSF (whereas previously, neither had).

Interesting … but even more interesting is a new mechanism through which the NSF will distribute some of this taxpayer largess: the CREATIV means to by-pass external peer review. Of course, this $24M initiative has a contorted name to achieve his acronym … Creative Research Awards for Transformative Interdisciplinary Ventures … for which the distinguishing characteristics are that “only internal merit review is required; proposals must be interdisciplinary and potentially transformative; and requests may be up to $1,000,000 and up to 5 years duration.” You do need buy in from program directors in 2 distinct divisions or programs. Applications will start pouring in Dec 1.

Getting back to the larger budget issues, FY12 for the NIH remains an unknown beyond the 1.5% cut from FY11 in the CR. We’ll see what happens along the way to Dec 16. In the meantime, here is a recap of the budget process as part of a comment I posted in NIH Paylines & Resources that may help those new to government dysfunction:

The federal fiscal year goes from Oct 1 to Sept 30 … and the year attached to the FY is always the second calendar year involved. We are currently in FY12.

Long long ago, Congress used to pass appropriation bills for individual federal agencies (i.e., Defense, Energy, State, Agriculture, et al.) before the FY ended, so the agencies would know how much money they had to spend during the next fiscal year. If there are no appropriation bills passed by Congress and signed into law by the President (or if there are only a few passed into law) by Oct 1, then Congress needs to pass a continuing resolution (CR) to maintain funding for the operation of the federal government. When you hear about threats of a federal government shut-down, this is why – no appropriated funds, no money to continue functioning. Continuing resolutions typically simply maintain the same funding levels from the year prior. For this year, F12, Congress passed a CR that funded the NIH at FY11 funding levels *minus* 1.5%. So, the NIH started FY12 with a funding cut from FY11.

The NIH has a real problem this year in reading the tea leaves. The House and Senate have completely different versions of the appropriations bill for the NIH. The Senate cuts the NIH budget and authorizes the creation of NCATS and the abolishment of NCRR (which is what Collins wants). The House gives the NIH a 3.3% increase … but keeps NCRR and does not approve the creation of NCATS. The appropriate subcommitttees in each chamber have not made any progress (at least that they’ve made public) on which version of the NIH appropriations language to use. So, no one at the NIH has a clue – not one – as to whether their funding will go up or down as FY12 proceeds. Right now, they have to assume they will complete the entire FY at the current funding level, which is FY11 – 1.5%.

You got a problem with how this system is working? Contact your Congressional delegation about supporting scientific research in the US through consistent, reliable funding streams versus putting everyone through this game every year. FASEB can help you find and communicate with your elected officials.

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Senate Appropriation Activities (NSF, NIH) … and now House Activity

Update: Jocelyn Kaiser notes that the House appropriations committee draft bill for Labor, HHS, and Education gives the NIH a 3.3% increase (!!) over FY11 funding levels while maintaining funding for NCRR (including $100M boost in its IDeA program) and not incorporating NCATS or CAN (but allowing $2M in the OD to go toward planning). Stay tuned as the sausage continues to be made.

The Senate Committee on Appropriations has spoken on FY12 proposals for commerce & justice and science (including NSF) and labor, health & human services, and education (including NIH).

Last week, the Committee reduced the NSF’s appropriation by $162M (2.4% cut from FY11), which would reduce funding for NSF’s 6 research directorates by $120M, to $5.44B, and spending on education by $32M, to $829M. The Committee’s proposal gives the NSF the flexibility to move up to $100M from other pots into the facilities budget (maintained at $224M), which will likely happen to maintain progress on various NSF initiatives. The House bill would maintain NSF’s overall budget at 2011 levels but shrink the facilities account to $100M.

The NIH fared no better in Committee, which cut their appropriation by $190M to $30.5B. The Senate bill also provides for the creation of NCATS (including $20M for CAN), which the National Review opined amounts to Obama Pharmaceuticals, Inc., and the elimination of NCRR. The House never got its act together on its corresponding appropriations bill. Could be worse. Could be raining.

Actually, while a cut of any size to the NIH budget is unprecedented, it could indeed be worse, given the current fiscal climate, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn) makes a nice plug for research funding (especially the need for consistency and continuity) in The Hill, so the NIH does still have vocal advocates among the ranks. About now would be a good time to let your Congressional delegation know the importance of maintaining research funding levels – at least steady if the appropriation cannot be increased.

Neither the full House nor the Senate has voted on any appropriations bills, though the House just rejected the proposed CR, which would have funded the federal government through Nov 18th at 1.5% below FY11 levels. Once again, a federal shut-down looms. Could be worse. Could be …

Update: Boehner strong-armed conservatives into approving essentially the same CR, which the Senate rejected.

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NSF Appropriation Increase for FY12

The House Appropriations Committee approved a subcommittee’s bill that would increase NSF-funded research & related activities by $43 million from FY11 to $6.6B … though at the cost of a $26 million cut from the Education and Human Resources directorate and $17 million from the research equipment and facilities fund.

The Committee adds to the bill a few suggestions on where NSF should spend this largess:

The Committee directs NSF to prioritize these new activities towards cybersecurity and cyberinfrastructure improvements;
advanced manufacturing (as further discussed below); materials research; and disciplinary and interdisciplinary research
in the natural and physical sciences, math and engineering.

The Committee also has some ideas on enhancing neuroscience research at NSF:

While specific applied neuroscience research is mainly supported by the National Institutes of Health, basic research supported by NSF will serve as the foundation for future clinical treatments of traumatic and acquired brain injuries, childhood developmental disorders, and other neurological conditions. To help focus and enhance the agency’s efforts, the Committee directs NSF to establish a Cognitive and Developmental Neuroscience crosscutting theme to guide future budget formulation in this area, and to increase its investments in research through this theme in fiscal year 2012.

Developmental neuroscience. I wonder if that might involve any stem cell research?

And get ready for the NSF Innovation Inducement Awards:

Funds provided under this heading may be used for innovation inducement prizes, as authorized by the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 (Public Law 111–358). The Committee encourages NSF to make use of this mechanism, particularly in programs that specifically emphasize innovation, to focus on high risk/high reward research projects and to incentivize private sector involvement. NSF is directed to report to the Committee on its plans for administering a prize program in fiscal year 2012. This report should be provided no later than 90 days after the enactment of this Act.

Wow. innovation can be induced. We probably need some research on this mechanism …

The total NSF appropriation for FY12, $6.86B, essentially represents a flat-line from FY11 and is $900M less than what the President requested. Still, it’s not an outright cut. The legislation backed by the Committee now goes to the full House, which is a bit preoccupied with other fiscal matters …

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NSF Seeks Input on Proposed Revisions to Review Criteria

Rather than “enhancing” peer review like big brother NIH, the NSF has been working to clarify the principles and criteria by which the intellectual merit and (especially) broader impacts of proposed research are assessed. The problem is mainly with the broader impacts, which seem to keep growing broader and broader.

As currently laid out in the Grant Proposal Guide, reviewers are asked to consider:

What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?
How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields? How well qualified is the proposer (individual or team) to conduct the project? (If appropriate, the reviewer will comment on the quality of prior work.) To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts? How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity? Is there sufficient access to resources?

What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning? How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)? To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships? Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding? What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?

Now the NSF seeks input on the revised Merit Review principles and criteria:

Merit Review Principles and Criteria
The identification and description of the merit review criteria are firmly grounded in the following principles:

    1. All NSF projects should be of the highest intellectual merit with the potential to advance the frontiers of knowledge.
    2. Collectively, NSF projects should help to advance a broad set of important national goals, including:
    ◦ Increased economic competitiveness of the United States.
    ◦ Development of a globally competitive STEM workforce.
    ◦ Increased participation of women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in STEM.
    ◦ Increased partnerships between academia and industry.
    ◦ Improved pre-K–12 STEM education and teacher development.
    ◦ Improved undergraduate STEM education.
    ◦ Increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology.
    ◦ Increased national security.
    ◦ Enhanced infrastructure for research and education, including facilities, instrumentation, networks and partnerships.
    3. Broader impacts may be achieved through the research itself, through activities that are directly related to specific research projects, or through activities that are supported by the project but ancillary to the research. All are valuable approaches for advancing important national goals.
    4. Ongoing application of these criteria should be subject to appropriate assessment developed using reasonable metrics over a period of time.

Intellectual merit of the proposed activity
The goal of this review criterion is to assess the degree to which the proposed activities will advance the frontiers of knowledge. Elements to consider in the review are:

    1. What role does the proposed activity play in advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields?
    2. To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?
    3. How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity?
    4. How well qualified is the individual or team to conduct the proposed research?
    5. Is there sufficient access to resources?

Broader impacts of the proposed activity
The purpose of this review criterion is to ensure the consideration of how the proposed project advances a national goal(s). Elements to consider in the review are:

    1. Which national goal (or goals) is (or are) addressed in this proposal? Has the PI presented a compelling description of how the project or the PI will advance that goal(s)?
    2. Is there a well-reasoned plan for the proposed activities, including, if appropriate, department-level or institutional engagement?
    3. Is the rationale for choosing the approach well-justified? Have any innovations been incorporated?
    4. How well qualified is the individual, team, or institution to carry out the proposed broader impacts activities?
    5. Are there adequate resources available to the PI or institution to carry out the proposed activities?

You have until July 14th to e-mail your comments to You can also review the history of modifications in merit review over the years.

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