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NSF drops preproposals, deadlines for biologists seeking funding

The National Science Foundation (NSF) will no longer require biologists applying for grants to submit preproposals and to adhere to an annual deadline for submissions. The changes pull the plug on a 5-year pilot project in two NSF divisions—and mark the agency’s latest attempt to reduce the burden of the grant review system on its staff and outside researchers without lowering its standards.

In 2012 the divisions of Environmental Biology (DEB) and Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS) within NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences limited scientists to two proposals a year, submitted annually rather than twice a year, and added a four-page preproposal as the first step in the merit review process. The hope was that in addition to easing workloads for NSF staff, the revamped system would improve the quality of the reviews and boost an applicant’s chance of success.

Based in Alexandria, Virginia, NSF is constantly tinkering with its grant review system, which varies across the six research directorates and reflects the culture of a particular scientific community. But workload concerns are a constant. Three years ago, for example, NSF’s astronomy division asked scientists to submit only one proposal a year to ease the burden on program managers, and several programs within the geosciences directorate saw the number of applications drop by half after they eliminated twice-a-year deadlines and allowing rolling submissions.

Last year NSF asked the consulting firm Abt Associates to analyze the impact of the biology directorate’s pilot. Some of the results were clear cut, according to its newly released report. Scientists strongly disliked the annual deadline, according to a survey of some 2500 applicants, and they felt the preproposals didn’t give them enough space to describe their idea.

The report laid to rest NSF’s fears that the changes might discourage certain types of proposals or have a disproportionate effect on certain groups, such as younger scientists. “The change in review had little effect on the characteristics of funded investigators,” the authors note. “Similarly, we found either no or positive changes in institutional diversity, percentage of collaborative projects, and reviewer and applicant interdisciplinarity.”

However, the report says the impact of the changes on workload was much harder to interpret, if not contradictory. Data provided by NSF show that program officers in the two divisions now handle many more proposals—an increase of 96% and 56% for DEB and IOS, respectively, compared with before the pilots began. (Program officers managing programs not in the pilot have seen their workload rise by only 16%.)

Yet the program officers didn’t appear to notice they were handling many additional proposals. “Most NSF staff interviewed reported that their proposal-associated workload has not changed, or declined slightly. … We are uncertain how to reconcile these findings,” Abt reported.

Alan Tessier, DEB’s deputy director, thinks the apparent contradictory findings are because of the wildly uneven workload that the pilot created. Applicants submitted significantly more preproposals than they had submitted full proposals in previous years, causing a severe work crunch early in the annual cycle. “That resulted in a very stressful spring,” Tessier says. But because the number of full proposals had dropped sharply, program managers spent much less time later in the year recruiting reviewers and running panels than they had spent under the old system.

In a 5 October “Dear Colleague” letter, directorate head James Olds predicted that removing a fixed deadline will allow scientists to “think more creatively [and propose] more complex, interdisciplinary projects.” He also expects it to smooth out the workflow for NSF program managers and to ease a work crunch for university administrators that must process the applications. Preproposals are being jettisoned, Olds tells ScienceInsider, because “they did not generate the evidence of clear-cut improvement in merit review that would warrant continuing them.”

The new no-deadline, full proposal mechanism applies to the directorate’s three core divisions—DEB, IOS, and Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, as well as some programs within its Division of Biological Infrastructure. Although preproposals are off the table, Olds doesn’t rule out making other changes in the future if he feels they would improve the review process.