The National Science Foundation’s new Understanding the Rules of Life track supports work on baboon gut microbiomes.

Elizabeth Archie, University of Notre Dame/NSF

Biologists irate at NSF’s new one-proposal cap

The National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, has made several tweaks to its grant proposal policies in recent years to keep staff and reviewers from being overwhelmed by the rising number of submissions. But some biologists say the latest change goes too far.

Last month, NSF’s biology directorate announced that researchers could submit only one proposal a year in which they are listed as a principal investigator (PI) or co-PI. The cap applies only to the directorate’s three core tracks and excludes several other NSF programs from which many biologists receive support.

The new limit is intended to reduce the number of rejected proposals resubmitted without major changes, says Alan Tessier, the biology directorate’s deputy assistant director. NSF would like scientists to collaborate at a deeper level than just “carving up the science” and listing each other on the grant proposal’s cover sheet, Tessier says.

But 70 scientists have signed onto a letter asking the agency to reconsider the new policy, which they also complain was adopted without any community input.

“It’s a terrible idea,” says Heather Eisthen, an integrative biologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “If you’re an early career scientist, desperate for funding, you’re not going to submit risky, collaborative projects that might be rejected. You’re going to focus on your own career and submit projects that are safe bets.”

“Now I have to choose between getting my own projects going, or being a co-PI on an interesting collaboration with a colleague,” says Kenneth Halanych, a zoologist at Auburn University in Alabama. “I shouldn’t need to make that choice.”

Eisthen and others say they support previous moves by NSF's biology directorate to address workload issues, including dropping the requirement for a preproposal and eliminating annual deadlines. The geosciences directorate found it received half as many applications after it switched to anytime submissions.

Joanne Tornow, acting head of the biology directorate, points out that researchers can still be listed as “senior personnel” on unlimited grants and therefore still receive funding. According to Tornow, NSF has “always treated the senior personnel as equivalent to PI or co-PI in intellectual contribution to a project.”

The researchers, however, do not consider the two titles to be equivalent. Being listed as senior personnel does not reflect the time and expertise that scientists bring to collaborations, Eisthen says. The research community often uses number of grants on which a researcher is listed as a PI or co-PI as a shorthand for the productivity and merit of a given scientist, Halanych says. Universities also use this metric in their decisions to hire and promote faculty.

Tornow says she hopes scientists will look beyond the directorates’ core tracks to new opportunities designed specifically for collaborative research. Scientists are able to submit two proposals as PI to the Biological Infrastructure track, and one to the directorate’s new Understanding the Rules of Life track, which last week made its first awards for research examining interactions between components of biological systems. Early career scientists are also able to apply for NSF’s CAREER awards, funding for new researchers in all of the agency’s core areas of study.

Researchers also expressed displeasure at the way the policy change was announced. They knew the abolishment of preproposals and deadlines was coming, says Eisthen, but were “blindsided” by the proposal cap.

Tornow says NSF is “sympathetic to the concerns the community is voicing,” and will continue to monitor and adjust the policy based on the volume and nature of the proposals coming in. “We’ve got the same goals and values,” Tornow says. “We want to offer as many opportunities for collaboration on important, cutting-edge work as we can.”

The decision to drop preproposals and annual deadlines was motivated by feedback from the research community, Tornow says. But Eisthen notes that it took 5 years to reverse that policy. “If it takes as long to change this new rule,” she says, “the progress of biological research might be substantially slowed in the meantime.”