Reminder: Preliminary Proposals Due January 23

DEB Core Programs and LTREB

Preliminary proposal submissions for DEB Core Programs and Long Term Research in Environmental Biology (LTREB) are due by 5:00PM (submitter’s local time) this January 23rd, 2017.

Please see our past post for updates to the DEB Core Programs and Long Term Research in Environmental Biology solicitations.


The deadline for preliminary proposal submissions for the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS) is different from DEB Core Programs and LTREB.  The IOS deadline for preliminary proposals is January 19th, 2017. Be sure and check out their blog for any updates.

DEB Numbers: FY 2016 Wrap-Up

DEB Numbers: FY 2016 Wrap-Up

Fiscal year 2016 officially closed out on September 30. Now that we are past our panels in October and early November, we have a chance to look back and report on the DEB Core Program merit review and funding outcomes for FY 2016.

This post follows the format we’ve used in previous years. For a refresher, and lengthier discussions of the hows and whys of the metrics, you can visit the 2015,  2014, and 2013 numbers.

Read on to see how 2016 compares. Continue reading

DEB & IOS Preliminary Proposal System Evaluation Update

Our independent evaluation contractor, Abt, closed the PI and Reviewer surveys in mid-November.

At present, they are working on analyzing the survey results. These results will be brought together with analyses of stakeholder interviews and programmatic (proposal, award, and review process) data that Abt has already completed to produce a full evaluation.

We are expecting the final report to be delivered to NSF by the end of February, 2017. We are looking forward to sharing the results with you as we are able.

And, to the many of you who were contacted by Abt to take part in the survey, thank you for your time and participation.

Your project titles matter, choose wisely

This post was inspired by a bit of musing as to what would happen if PIs tried to crowd-source parts of their proposals. The obvious answer, to us at least, was that we would almost certainly, and immediately, receive a proposal titled “Granty McGrantface.” We’re presuming you are familiar with the reference; but if not, see these links. While the saga of our friends at NERC turned our pretty well, it reminded us of two things: 1) asking the internet to decide for you is a risky proposition, and (the focus of this post) 2) that no matter our intentions, some of the stuff[i] we do, or that stems from the funding we provide to you, will get noticed by a wide audience. Most stuff tends to go unnoticed, but from time to time something goes viral.

Therefore: What you choose to call your project matters.

Why the project title matters to NSF

The project title is the most meaningful and unique piece of your proposal that carries over to the public award description. Everything else in your proposal is distilled and condensed down to a couple paragraphs of “public abstract” and a few dozen metadata records available via the NSF award search and[ii]. Consider, too, the project title is a part of your proposal for which NSF takes responsibility and exercises editorial power. We can, and sometimes do, change project titles (about a quarter are changed, mostly for clarity – such as writing out abbreviations.)

Why the project title matters to you

The project title and PI info are the only things most potential reviewers will ever see before deciding whether to review your proposal. The title is your first (and typically only) shot to communicate to a reviewer that your proposal is interesting and worth their time to review[iii].  And as we said above, if your proposal gets funded, the title gets posted on the NSF public awards website along with the PI name and institution.


You can (and should) provide effective project titles

When you receive an award, the title will be searchable by anyone and permanently associated with your name. Over the years, we’ve seen a vast array of proposal titles. We’ve also seen how they affect the audiences (reviewers, panels, and public) who read or hear them. Based on the accumulation of observations and experiences in DEB, we’ve put together these 8 tips to consider when composing your project titles.

Keep in mind: The following are not any sort of universally enforced rules or NSF policy. The proposal title is initially your responsibility, but as we said, once it comes into NSF, we can edit it as needed. Ultimately, what makes a good title is subjective and is probably not constant across disciplines or over time. These are just some broad and general tips we hope you’ll find helpful.

Tip 1: Know your broader audiences

Reviewers, including panelists, are specialists, but not necessarily from the same sub-sub-specialty as you. Public readers of award titles cover an even wider range of knowledge and expertise. These are the people who are going to read that title and make a decision whether to take action. Reviewers will, first, decide whether or not to read, and then, whether or not to support your proposal. The public will decide whether to read your award abstract, and the media will decide whether to contact you.

There are both good and bad potential outcomes of public attention. It can seem like a strong, scientifically precise, and erudite proposal title might inform and impress readers. But that misses half the point: it’s not simply about avoiding misunderstanding. Instead, a good title is a vehicle for audience engagement; it seeks to cultivate positive responses. This happens when you use straight-forward, plain language, minimizing jargon and tech-speak, with a clear message. The rest of these tips are basically more specific examples of ways to do this.

Tip 2: Write to your (proposal’s) strengths

Most of us feel some twinge of annoyance when we see a misleading headline or publication title, e.g. “Transformative Biology Research to Cure All Diseases.” This is your chance to get it right! Don’t bury the lede. Focus your title on the core idea of the proposal. In many cases, details like the organism, the location, or the specific method are secondary[iv]; if you include them, do so carefully, in supporting roles and not swamping the central conceptual component[v]. If you wrote your title before your proposal, it’s a good idea to come back around to it before hitting submit.

Tip 3: Using Buzzwords #OnFleek

It’s a bit cliché to say this, but it bears mention: don’t tell us your project is great, demonstrate it. That is what the project description is for. We like “transformative” and “interdisciplinary” projects, but placing those words in your title doesn’t imbue your project with those qualities. Similarly, loading up on topical or methodological buzzwords (“*omics”, “CRISPR”, etc.) adds little when the major consideration is the knowledge you’re seeking to uncover, not the shiny new tool you want to wield or the loose connection to a hot topic. The space you save by dropping this extra verbiage can allow you to address other important aspects of your project.

Tip 4: Acronyms

They save space in your title. And, NSF seems to have them all over the place (It’s an ARE: Acronym Rich Environment). So, why not use them, right? Well…, tread carefully.

The various title prefixes (e.g. RUI, CAREER) we ask for are used by us to 1) ensure reviewers see that special review criteria apply and 2) check that we’ve applied the right processing to your proposal. They’re often acronyms because we don’t want to waste your character count. So, we want those on your proposals[vi] but, after merit review, we may remove them before making an award. Other acronyms added by you tend to fall into two categories:

  • Compressed jargon- for example, “NGS” for Next Generation Sequencing. When you don’t have the whole proposal immediately behind it, an acronym in your title may never actually be defined in the public description and it may imply something unintended to some in the audience.
  • Project-name shorthand- There are perhaps a handful of projects that through longevity and productivity have attained a degree of visibility and distinctiveness that allows them to be known by an acronym or other shorthand within the particular research community. Even if your project has achieved this distinction, remember that your audience goes beyond your community: not everyone will know of it. Further, trying to create a catchy nickname for a project (or program) usually doesn’t add anything to your proposal and can lead to some real groan-inducing stretches of language.

Tip 5: Questions to consider

How will reviewers respond to a title phrased as a question? Is the answer already an obvious yes or no? If so, why do you need the proposal and more money? Is this question even answerable with your proposed work? Is this one of the very rare projects that can be effectively encapsulated in this way?

Tip 6: Attempted humor

This can work; it may also fall flat (see above entry on “Questions”). It can, to some audiences, make your project seem unprofessional and illegitimate. That is a sizeable risk. It used to be, and still is to some extent, a fairly common practice to have a joke or cartoon in your slide deck to “lighten the mood” and “connect with your audience”. If you’ve ever seen a poor presenter do this, you know it’s not a universally good thing. With a proposal title, it’s always there and doesn’t get buried under the rest of the material as might happen with a slide. The alternative is to skip the joke and write something that connects to your reader through personality and creativity instead. This can be hard to do, but practice helps. For example, “I Ain’t Afraid of No Host: The Saga of a Generalist Parasite” was a funny, at least to us, title we made up – but will everyone reading it think it is funny, and does it help the grant that the title is funny? It isn’t very informative – again, tread lightly.

Tip 7: Latin vs Common terms

Per tip 2, you may not always list an organism in your project title; but when you do, make it accessible. The Latin name alone places a burden of prior knowledge or extra work on readers. It is a courtesy to public readers (not to mention your own SRO who may be filling out paperwork about your proposal and also to panelists who may be far afield from your system and unfamiliar with your organism) to add a common name label too. But, be careful. Some common names are too specific, jargon-y, or even misleading for a general audience. You don’t want, for instance, someone to see “mouse-ear cress” for Arabidopsis thaliana and think you’re working on vertebrate animal auditory systems (this has happened![vii]).

Tip 8: Thoughtful Word Choice

This tip expands the idea of confusing language, which we already pointed out regarding Latin names and acronyms, to avoiding jargon in general. Some jargon is problematic just because it is dense; as with Latin names and acronyms, this sort of jargon can be addressed by addition of or replacement with common terms. Other jargon is problematic because the audience understands it, but differently than intended. Meg Duffy over at Dynamic Ecology had a post on this some time back in the context of teaching and communication. These issues arise in proposals too. There are some very core words in our fields that don’t necessarily evoke the same meaning to a general audience or even across fields. The most straightforward example we can point to is our own name: the “E” in DEB stands for “environmental.” To a general audience environmental is more evocative of “environmentalism,” “conservation,” recycling programs, and specific policy goals than it is of any form of basic research[viii]. Addressing this sort of jargon in a proposal title is a bit harder because the word already seems common, and concise alternative phrasings are hard to come by.

For jargon, it might benefit you to try bouncing your title off of a neighbor, an undergrad outside your department, or an administrator colleague. In some cases, you might find a better, clearer approach. In others, maybe there’s not a better wording, but at least you are more aware of the potential misunderstandings.

Final Thoughts

Most of the project titles that we see won’t lead to awards and will never be published; and even if an award is made, most of their titles attract little notice. A few, however, will be seen by thousands or be picked up by the media and broadcast to millions. Thus, the title seems like a small and inconsequential thing, until it’s suddenly important. Because of this, even though the project title is a small piece of your proposal, it is worthy of attention and investment. We have provided the tips above to help you craft a title that uses straight-forward, plain language, to convey a clear and engaging message to your audiences.

We can’t avoid attention. In fact, we want to draw positive attention to the awesome work you do. But audience reactions are reliably unpredictable. The best we can do is to make sure that what we’re putting out there is as clear and understandable as possible.


[i] Anything related to research funding from policies on our end to research papers to tweets or videos mentioning projects.

[ii] At the close of an award, you are also required to file a “Project Outcomes Report” via This also becomes part of the permanent project record and publicly visible when your work is complete. We don’t edit these.

[iii] For the “good titles” argument as applied to research papers, see here:

[iv] There are obvious exceptions here, like a proposal for a targeted biodiversity survey in a geographical region.

[v] For what it’s worth, this is a common “rookie mistake” even before writing a proposal. We get lots of inquiries along the lines of “do you fund studies on organism X” or “in place Y”. The short answer is yes, but it’s often irrelevant because that doesn’t differentiate DEB from MCB or IOS or BioOCE. We don’t define the Division of Environmental Biology by organisms, or places, or tools, or methods. We define it by the nature of the fundamental questions being addressed by the research.

[vi] Some prefixes are mutually exclusive of one another. For example, CAREER and RUI cannot both be applied to the same proposal (

[vii] Better alternatives might have been “plant”, “wild mustard”,

[viii] And yes, we do get the same sorts of calls and emails about “sick trees”, “that strange bird I saw”, “what to do about spiders,” etc. as you do.

Fall 2016 DEB Panels status: “When will I have a decision?” edition

DEB’s full proposal panels finished in early November (for those full proposals submitted back in July and August). So, when will you receive review results?

Some of you may have already heard from us. Others will be hearing “soon” (as detailed below).

Right now, all of our programs have synthesized the recommendations of their panels, considered their portfolios, and come up with their planned award and decline recommendations. These are then documented, sent through administrative review, and finally signed off, “concurred,” by the head or deputy for the Division.

DEB’s first priority is processing the decline notices. We’re trying to get your reviews back to you to provide as much time as possible to consider your options for January pre-proposal submissions.

For potential awards, it’s a bit more complicated. We expect award recommendation dates to be later this year than typical. At present, NSF is operating under a temporary budget measure, called a Continuing Resolution (or CR). The current CR runs through December 9, 2016. We won’t have significant funds available to cover new grants until a longer-term funding measure is enacted.

So, while we have a prioritized list of award recommendations, we don’t yet have the funds needed to take action on those recommendations. Moreover, we don’t know how much funding we’ll actually have available so uncertainty is part of the plan. Thus, between “definite award recommendation” and “definite decline recommendation” we have a recommendation gray zone.

How are we handling this?

If your proposal fell into the definite decline group, then you’ll be getting an official notice from DEB. Once the formal decline recommendation is approved, the system updates the proposal status in FastLane and queues up a notification email. We are planning to have all declines approved by December 20, 2016. Note: our IT system sends the notification emails in batches at the end of the day[i]. Thus, if you are frequently refreshing FastLane you will likely see the news there before you get a letter from us.

If your proposal fell into the definite award group or the gray zone, you will first be getting a call or email from your Program Officer. They will be letting you know what the plan is for your particular proposal and how you can get things ready (e.g., submitting budget revisions or abstract language) for an eventual award. Formal action, including the release of reviews, cannot happen until we have funding available. However, folks in this group should also hear from their Program Officers by December 20.

After December 20, if you have not received any communication from us, first check your spam folder and then look up your proposal number and give us a call. But please remember, the lead PI for a proposal or collaborative group is the designated point of contact; if you’re a co-PI you need to get in touch with the lead PI and have them inquire.

[i] We’re not totally sure why this is, but suspect it has to do with email traffic volume and security features: discriminating an intentional batch of emails from an account taken over by a bot.

REPOST: What We’re Thankful For: PIs

This post was originally published in November of 2013. We’re a bit late to the November holiday theme, but we’re still in the post-panel administrative processing phase, and once again will be faced with declining a lot of really interesting ideas. So, even a week late, we thought it would be good to re-visit some reflections on helpful PI habits for which we’re thankful.  We’ve updated a couple of links and references to match current NSF policy documents.

Working in DEB has its ups and downs. There is a great energy that comes from hearing about our PIs’ accomplishments or rallying support for a new funding opportunity. But, there are also the not-so-fun parts of the job and it can seem especially dreary in DEB right about this time of year (we do not particularly enjoy declining requests to fund cool science). So we wanted to take a moment to jump on the bandwagon of seasonally-themed posts and reflect on the little things that brighten our days.

Here’s a list of 10 ways PIs make us thankful. Continue reading

Program Announcement: DEB Core Programs & LTREB Solicitations Updates

Updated guidelines are now available for submissions under the two-stage DEB preliminary/full proposal system. Both DEB Core Programs and Long Term Research in Environmental Biology (LTREB) have been updated.

The new DEB Core Programs publication is NSF 17-512[i].

The new LTREB publication is NSF 17-513[ii].

Please read these guidelines if you plan to submit a preliminary proposal.

In this post, we’re providing a brief summary of the notable points and key changes, but this is not sufficient information to complete a submission.

Both solicitations

  • The definition of “Eligible Institutions” has been updated with limits on the eligible institution types. Institution types that do not meet this definition remain eligible as sub-awardees, but cannot be the primary grant recipient.
  • The deadline for submitting the Personnel List Spreadsheet (from a template, submitted by email) has been reduced to 1 business day (from 3 days) after the proposal deadline for both preliminary and full proposals.
  • The purpose and procedures for requesting a full proposal deferral have been updated and clarified.
  • The requirement for full proposals to provide results of prior NSF support has been clarified and emphasized.
  • The guidelines for Letters of Collaboration (to confirm cooperation or involvement of persons or organizations not receiving funding under the proposal) have been updated to clarify the purpose of, and limits on, such letters.

DEB Core Programs

  • The Core Programs solicitation now includes instructions for submission of international collaborative proposals involving eligible collaborators in the UK (via NERC) or Israel (via BSF). These instructions continue the partnerships originally advertised as Dear Colleague Letters.
  • The budget cap for the small grants (SG) option has been increased to $200,000.


  • The Project Description page limit for RENEWAL proposals has been increased from 8 to 10 pages.

Changes Beyond the DEB Solicitations


Many of our PIs have research interests that overlap between DEB and the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS). New submission guidelines for the preliminary proposal system in IOS have also been published as NSF 17-508. Check with IOS and the IOS Blog for additional information.


Please take note that the NSF general proposal guidelines have also been revised. This information is provided in the NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG), which previously comprised two publications known as the Grant Proposal Guide (GPG) and Award & Administration Guide (AAG). The new version of the PAPPG, is a single consolidated guide:  NSF 17-1. The guidelines in PAPPG 17-1 apply for proposals submitted or due, or awards made, on or after January 30, 2017. This document contains the full set of general guidelines to PIs, including everything from proposal preparation to award reporting and close-out.

A summary explanation of the new PAPPG format and changes from the previous edition of the guide can be read here:

These revisions have minimal effect on the requirements for the upcoming DEB preliminary proposal deadline (since the PAPPG comes into force on Jan 30, 2017 – a week after the pre-proposal deadline).

The guidelines in PAPPG 17-1 will apply for invited full proposals (due next August), and other proposals you may be planning to submit to DEB or other NSF programs.

For instance, starting on Jan, 30 2017 any RAPID or EAGER proposals intended for DEB would list the NSF 17-1 PAPPG program announcement number on the proposal cover page.

[i] The old solicitation NSF 15-609 is no longer accepting new proposals.

[ii] The old solicitation NSF 16-500 is no longer accepting new proposals.