Chat Transcript: NSF's Rita Colwell and Nat Pitts

Earlier this week, Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and Nat Pitts, director of Integrative Activities at NSF, took time out of their hectic schedules to participate in Next Wave's first live online chat. Colwell and Pitts readied themselves to field questions from interested Next Wave readers, but the duo were swamped by the 200 or so questions that came in during the one-and-a-half-hour session. Unfortunately, not all of the questions could be answered; nevertheless, we are encouraged by the level of interest you showed and we're in the process of considering subsequent topics and presenters. Your suggestions, as always, would be appreciated.

For those of you who watched the events unfold and for those who were unable to participate "live" on Tuesday, 11 July 2000, here is a transcript of the chat.

NEXT WAVE:Hello! And welcome to Next Wave's first live online chat. I'm Vid Mohan-Ram, editor of Next Wave's Career Development Center. We are honored to be joined today by National Science Foundation (NSF) director Rita Colwell and NSF's director of Integrative Activities, Nat Pitts. They have both agreed to answer your questions about NSF grants.

NEXT WAVE:Welcome Nat

DR. PITTS:Nice to be here!

NEXT WAVE:Thank you for joining us today...Let's dive straight in.

QUESTION: For junior faculty without prior NSF funding, is it suggested to submit as a sole PI or submit with an established PI?

DR. PITTS:This is truly a judgement call. At some institutions, the institution suggests that junior faculty submit with a senior investigator to establish more credibility.However, a junior investigator, working on his/her own, and with the necessary credentials to perform the proposed work is quite able and it is acceptible for them to submit independently. Quite often this indepentent submission is viewed better by the review community and demonstrated that this is not just another sub-project from the lab of a well funded investigator.

QUESTION: Working in bioenginering has always put some of us in a difficult position, NIH does not accept to many cutting edge unproved technology and NSF does not like grants with health orientation. Any plans to improve this to give a better chance for mulidisciplinary fields with medical scope?

DR. PITTS:The timing of this question could not be better! NSF and NIH have been working all spring and part of this new summer on solving this situation ans we believe we are coming up with improvements in this arena. We are not finished yet with our deliberations yet but we are making real progress. The engineers as well as many of the bio-informatics people are in the same boat...between NSF and NIH.

QUESTION: Will the NSF be introducing any career development grants to help postdocs obtain their first faculty position?

DR. PITTS:I don't see this in the cards this year or next. We are however, starting to look at all career transition points to study why more Americans are not staying in science and engineering.

QUESTION: Are there specific funds set aside for first time applicants, beyond early career awards?

DR. PITTS:NSF has a number of programs of various types that focus on different populations. We support even undergraduates at community colleges that are focusing on computer science as a result of some H-1 visa funds we receive from congress. But if your question is what is set-aside for young, junior investigators who are starting their research careers, we use our CAREER program to settle that issue across all fields of science and engineering.

QUESTION: I applied for a first-year graduate grant that was not approved...what am I eligible to apply for in the next few years, prior to finishing my doctorate?

DR. PITTS:Sometimes this is a question that is field-specific. If you are saying that you did not get the NSF-Graduate Fellowship...then you may want to find NSF-supported researchers that can support you directly. We do not have other competitive programs specifically [for] graduate students.

QUESTION: What funding opportunities are available for foreign scientists?

DR. PITTS:Very few directly. NSF, being the guardians of US tax payers dollars to be invested in basic research,,,focuses it's investment in US colleges and universities. Foreign students, postdocs, and faculty who are at US institutions often receive funding from depending on the research area.

QUESTION: What programs does NSF have for women junior faculty who are not changing their research area?

DR. PITTS:The CAREER Program focuses on all junior faculty. And, during the past few years, POWRE has focused on Women faculty. We are working on a new program ADVANCE, for women faculty but the focus has not been determined yet,,,either at the institutional level or at the individual investigator level.

QUESTION: When going for your first NSF grant, how important do you feel it is that you have some prior work in that area?

DR. PITTS:This actually is one of the necessary items for funding. One must demonstrate competency with the techniques involved in the proposed project. If you have not worked in the immediate area of research, no one will trust your ability to perform the methodology, including interpreting the data. It is important that your funded work be accepted by the field and therefore publishable. If, however, there is a new technique that you do not know and you have expertise in your department or someone has certified (through a letter of support) that they will help you with that limited technology...reviewers will appreciate that you have obtained the necessary assistance to complete the proposed project competently.

NEXT WAVE:Rita Colwell, director of the NSF will be joining us shortly.

NEXT WAVE:Dr. Colwell, welcome!

DR. COLWELL:Glad to be on line. Look forward to the discussion.

QUESTION: I was a first-time applicant this past December and this was the first large grant I ever attempted. I felt my reviews were fair and accurate. 4 of six were good and 2 as fair. The major criticism was that the project was not broad enough for NSF, it was an specific evolutionary question for a particular species. I intend to discuss the reviews with the program officer. Should I be encourage about a majority of the reviews being in the Good category and attempt to present my research as a broader evolutionary question?

DR. COLWELL:Speak with your program officer and also, take into account the reviews!

QUESTION: Are there any new directions or developments in NSF's digital library initiative?

DR. COLWELL:The initiative is being expanded. Judy Sunley, AD for EHR should be contacted.

QUESTION: Does the NSF have plans to offer more opportunities for grad students to apply to NSF directly beyond the Graduate Research Fellowship Program?

DR. COLWELL:Yes, we are discussing a post-post doctoral program. It is in the initial stages.

QUESTION: What programs does NSF have for faculty from underrepresented ethnic groups?

DR. COLWELL:There are a number of such programs. The EHR directorate, in particular, has such programs. Also, each directorate has applicable programs.

QUESTION: Will there be more funds available for fist time postdoc applicants?

DR. COLWELL:This is our intent! We hope to increase the funds for this.

QUESTION: Do you fund only first-year postdocs, or can you have two years behind you?

DR. COLWELL:We fund post-doctorals within research projects and there is no limit on time in time of experience.

NEXT WAVE: In a question sent in by e-mail before we started this chat, a Next Wave reader from Georgia asked: Last summer the NSF was accepting applications for young investigator awards. However, when I searched the NSF Web site recently, I could not find an announcement for a similar award. Are these only opened up every other year, or has the format for these awards changed?

DR. COLWELL:This question needs to be directed to Judy Sunly at NSF. We are continuing CAREER awards. The PYI awards are not being made in that exact form.

QUESTION: I have just received my first position and have been provided a start-up lab with high-throughput capabilities for genotyping and sequencing. Thus, we can easily accomplish a project that generates alot of data, but this may look too ambitious and have a large funding request for a junior faculty. How is this weighted by the reviewers?

DR. COLWELL:Be very specific in the goals you wish to achieve. If it is clear what you intend to do and the methods are sound, you should do well. The science, of course, is what you will be judged on.

QUESTION: Could you identify the five most important considerations when submitting an NSF grant proposal?

DR. COLWELL:In my personal experience as an NSF awardee, the merit of the research, the soundness of the methodology, the previous experience, ie accomplishments to date, relevance of the work to a problem of concern, represent the major criteria.

QUESTION: Will the NSF be more likely to fund a program that has other financial backers?

DR. COLWELL:Obviously, one cannot be funded twice (or more) for the same work. However, if one aspect of the work is funded by another source, but funds are sought for a portion of the total project that is within the purview of NSF, is meritorious and competitive then a request to NSF is legitimate and could be funded.

DR. COLWELL:I am sorry to have to sign off. It has been very nice to talk directly with the community. Rita Colwell.

NEXT WAVE:Dr. Colwell, thank you very much for your time. We really appreciate your advice.

QUESTION: How is NSF changing its focus this year to reverse the slide of first time applicants?

DR. PITTS:NSF like all federal agencies has to be responsive the Government Performance Results Act..This is a law that essentially requires agencies to write a performance plan containing goals. And, one of the goals of the NSF is to make awards to new investigators at a rate of 30% of the total awards for the year. Last year (FY-99) 27% of our new awards went new investigators. We will bulid on this and continue to aim towards 30%. We have found that success breeds success. And if more young investigators (new investigators) are successful more will apply. We also continue to study the issue to determine what factors are preventing young investigators from submitting to NSF.

QUESTION: Dr. Pitts, Most areas of bioinformatics have been targeted toward computer engineers. Will any cross-disciplinary programs be offered for biological scientists interested in learning the computational aspects necessary to deal with the genomic information?

DR. PITTS:Under our new initiative in Biocomplexity there is an emphasis on bio-informatics. You should look at that solicitation for that,,,and/or e-mail someone ( in the Bio directorate for more specific information.

QUESTION: Beginning investigators are asked to identify themselves as such on an NSF application form. What consideration do they receive during the review process for that designation?

DR. PITTS:Well, usually the reviewers in the field know whether you are new to the field. So, truly, this designation is to keep NSF on it's toes regarding support for young investigators...thus tracking this issue and keeping the system open.

NEXT WAVE:Dr. Pitts has another 10 minutes or so with us...keep your questions coming.

QUESTION: What services are available for graduate students looking to land their first NSF grant at an institution with little or no experience with the NSF application process?

DR. PITTS:At the competitive program level, only the NSF Graduate Fellowships obtain to this issue. NSF supports a great number of graduate students on existing grants to individual investigators.

NEXT WAVE:We have time for a couple more questions.

QUESTION: If I submit a proposal that falls into several research areas, how is that proposal reviewed?

DR. PITTS:NSF does a lot to ensure that proposals get a serious and fair review. Program officers in one program do a great deal of business with other program officers while obtaining reviewers for multidisciplinary proposals. Many proposals have 2 and 3 program staff working on the review. One would be pleasantly surprised at some of the reviews that take place here. The research community does a super job of making sure that reviews are given a great deal of seriousness.

QUESTION: The discussion is centering around young investigators, and rightly so, but what about senior investigators who are changing fields and applying for their first NSF grant? Is there a bias, spoken or otherwise, toward young investigators?

DR. PITTS:Well, our data actually show that investigators that have received NSF support in the past have a much great chance of getting funded that those who have not received support before. Success rates for new investigators is at about the 23% level while prior investigators are successful at the 39% level. Senior investigators changing fields bring with them experience and credibility from prior research activities. There is not a bias against them. If anything, it may work the opposite way.

NEXT WAVE:Time is running out...I'm afraid this is going to be the last question...

QUESTION: It seems that the two errors made in grant writing are being too narrow or trying to do too much--is that an accurate assessment?

DR. PITTS:We often refer to this type of summary as first grant-itus. Most naive grant writers try to propose a life's worth of work in a 3-year timeframe.They will often leave out the details of the methodologies that are required to complete the project. They also don't put in the information about why anyone should care about the results of the research project. If you want to make sure you do not get a grant funded, write it like a mystery...don't tell anyone why it is important to do....don't tell anyone how (what methods) you are going to use to do the work...

Don't write what you have done in the past to make you qualified to take on this porject....and don't write what you will do next(next step options) with the data to be gleened. Many first-time grant writers miss the big issue of context. From strictly a numbers a first-time grant writer, I would write for a small, doable, project and prove to the community that they can invest in me and I will deliver the work. Then, after proving myself, then I would work up to larger more ambitious projects. Our numbers on success rates suggest that this is the way to go.

NEXT WAVE:OK everyone, unfortunately, the time has come to end our session. Dr. Pitts, on behalf of all of Next Wave, we would like to thank you very much for your time and advice.

DR. PITTS:This has been a pleasure but I must now go off to meet with people in our shop who are working on Partnerships for Innovation. Best regards! Nat.

NEXT WAVE:Thank you all for joining us today. With over 200 questions submitted, there clearly is a great deal of interest in NSF programs and funding in general. Next Wave is in the process of revamping its forum discussion platform within the next week or so, we expect to announce that the new platform is ready.

NEXT WAVE:Again, on behalf of all of Next Wave, we'd like to thank you for such a great start to our live chat feature, and look forward to seeing you again soon.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers