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Scientists investigate deep-sea comb jellies with funding from the National Science Foundation’s Dimensions of Biodiversity program.

Steve Haddock/NSF

In reversal, NSF lifts proposal limits on biologists

In a reversal, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will no longer restrict researchers to only one proposal submission per year to the biology directorate’s three core tracks in which they are listed as a principal investigator (PI) or co-PI.

The change, announced yesterday in a statement by the biology directorate’s acting head, Joanne Tornow, will be in place for at least the 2019 fiscal year that began 1 October. It rescinds a policy implemented this past August that was immediately met with strong opposition from the research community. Tornow cited the community response and the relatively low number of proposals submitted to the directorate since August as the motivation behind lifting the restriction.

“NSF understood the community’s concerns about the new submission process because we care about the same things,” Tornow said in statement to ScienceInsider. “To ensure we remain good stewards of the merit review process, we will continue to monitor the effects of these changes and adjust as necessary.”

The submission limit was the latest in a series of changes the Alexandria, Virginia–based agency has made to its grant review system in past few years. According to Tornow, the restrictions were intended to prevent the biology directorate’s review system from being overwhelmed by proposals as they switched to a no-deadline system, to reduce the number of rejected proposals that were later resubmitted without major changes, and to encourage deeper collaborations between scientists.

But the August announcement caused many members of biological research community to voice their concerns that the restrictions would discourage collaboration and hinder the careers of young scientists.

The reversal is “a huge relief,” says Kenneth Halanych, a zoologist at Auburn University in Alabama. He was one of 70 researchers who signed a letter in September asking the agency to reconsider the new policy. The Ecological Society of America (ESA) in Washington, D.C., and 20 other scientific societies also sent a letter earlier this month to NSF’s director, France Córdova, asking that the proposal limits be rescinded.

ESA and its allies “appreciate that the biology directorate leadership listened and quickly responded by removing the PI or co-PI cap on proposal submissions,” says ESA President Laura Huenneke. “The biological and ecological community’s and the biology directorate’s strong history of collaboration and mutual respect made this possible.”

The announcement was “fantastic news,” says Heather Eisthen, an integrative biologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing who helped spearhead the letter writing. Eisthen says she’s spent about an hour every day of the week since late August trying to get the policy reversed by calling and emailing NSF representatives, as have many other researchers in the field. “It’s a big credit to Joanne [Tornow] and Alan Tessier [the directorate’s deputy assistant director] that they were willing to have so many phone calls and conversations with us,” Halanych says.

Now, Halanych says he and his colleagues will no longer have to choose between focusing on their own proposals or trying to support the work of younger researchers through collaborations. And it should give early career researchers on the tenure track more opportunities to have their “ideas vetted by the review process and valuable feedback on what a good proposal looks like,” says Mitchell Pavao-Zuckerman, an assistant professor of urban ecology at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Tornow said the directorate is seeking approval from NSF’s Biological Sciences Advisory Committee “to establish a subcommittee to assist in developing the evidence base for any future policy changes that may be needed.” That was welcome news to Eisthen, who believes there was minimal evidence supporting the initial change.