Paula Mabee, Former Division Director, Bids Farewell to DEB

Paula Mabee, Division Director, BIO/DEB

Paula Mabee


After serving as Division Director for nearly two and a half years, I left DEB at the end of 2017, needing to return to my personal life and my academic home. After decades of NSF funding, panel service, and sending in ad hoc reviews, the opportunity to not only view, but to at least partially direct what happens behind the curtain, was immensely satisfying. And, from a personal standpoint, the time at NSF was probably one of the most interesting and fulfilling chapters of my professional life. Why? What did I learn about NSF to pass along to the DEB community, now that I’m on the “outside” again? What might you not know about the inner workings of NSF that I can share with you?

First and foremost, though previous participation as a panelist always left me with the feeling of trust in NSF, from experience on the inside, I can further say that I have enormous respect for the merit review processes put in place and the people who carry them out. The people – your scientific peers who are serving as Program Officers – and the administrative staff – that well-educated and carefully chosen cadre of personnel in DEB – are idealistically committed to the mission of supporting fundamental science for the well-being of the planet. They hold fairness as a core value and are scrupulous in its application. They also care about you as an individual; they take pride in your successes and pay attention to your journey through various career stages. Whether your proposal is awarded or declined, they have great respect for you. Unfortunately, given that nearly a third of the proposals received are well worth funding, and yet DEB success rates are much lower, POs are often the bearers of hard news. This is a tough position to be in – and out of their control – and yet one of their core values is to be as communicative and transparent with you as possible. They have my deepest respect.

Award decisions are made and justified by your scientific peers – the Program Officers serving at NSF – and my job included oversight of this process. For example, if a PO recommended declining a proposal that was deemed highly competitive by a panel (or, vice versa, recommending a proposal that was deemed non-competitive), an explicit and defensible justification was required. In each situation, I saw the thorough and thoughtful approach of POs in considering both the science and careers of the PIs.

And the science! Intellectually, it was really fun to read across the different proposals submitted to DEB. Great ideas in fundamental, diverse, and ambitious areas of science come into DEB. Part of the process for awarding funding involves presenting the list of proposals for recommendation or decline to the Division Director and Deputy Director. The POs pick out a few proposals that they find the most compelling or illustrative of what is happening in a field, and they describe the science to us. I was often filled with admiration for the ambition and vision of the science proposed by DEB PIs. The accomplishments of science and our understanding of the natural world are due to incredible people like you. And NSF recognizes this like no other institution.

Other things from my time at NSF:

  • DEB is responsive! When a directive or inquiry comes to BIO from our bosses, we answer pronto! Days are dynamic, busy, and long – think Madame Secretary and VEEP. Everything possible is being done to demonstrate the value of fundamental science to our nation!
  • The camaraderie in DEB is palpable. The teamwork between administrative and scientific staff is complementary and highly involved. We like each other 🙂
  • The learning curve for a rotator (PO or Division Director) is steep, but necessary and justified. It’s all about fairness!!! There are detailed processes that protect your proposal from reviewers or POs with a conflict of interest. NSF is looking out for you by training up the personnel responsible for handling your proposals.
  • Introspection, reflection. Where is your field going? What did you publish recently? What was the upshot of that workshop or meeting? Your NSF POs (and leadership) are listening. Retreats are a big thing in DEB – a time to hash over whether changes need to happen, to constantly re-evaluate whether NSF solicitations and DEB organizational structure reflects where your field needs to be.
  • Balancing the continued commitment to core programs with more specialized solicitations is one of the more stimulating aspects of serving as Division Director.   Discerning the future ‘fundamental’ or ‘core’ is best done as a team (see above).
  • It’s about the data. NSF – and DEB – has an appetite for remorseless analysis of the internal data relating e.g., success rates to gender, diversity, career stages, etc. To their dismay, little of this can be shared with you, i.e., the outside community, because these are data that are shared by PIs with the agency – not you. And NSF protects this.

I leave DEB filled with deep respect for the scientists serving in rotating or permanent roles at NSF and for the incredibly smart and committed administrative staff who are interested in spending their lives in service to furthering your science. It was a privilege to work with them. If you have the opportunity to serve DEB, please do – say “yes” to those requests for ad hoc reviews (especially – they are a major bottleneck in the review process), panel service, and the opportunity to be a Program Officer or Division Director. I am also grateful for the opportunity to meet the many scientists involved in the awesome science supported by DEB, likely many of you who are reading this blog.

Meet DEB: Kaitlin McDonald


Kaitlin McDonald


Where are you attending school?

I’m finishing up my MS in environmental science and policy at Johns Hopkins.

What’s your role here at DEB?

I’m a Science Assistant and looking forward to learning more about this role and assisting in program and proposal management.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

In my free time I really enjoy hiking (my most recent, favorite hike), reading, and complementing strangers’ dogs. I recently started rock-climbing and have a new appreciation for the Earth’s surface.

Would you rather be a fish or a bird?

Owls are the greatest but I think it would be really interesting to live as a species of deep sea fish, like the lantern fish or the cookiecutter shark.

Proposal & Award Policy Newsletter

To help keep PIs and Sponsored Projects Offices up to date on the latest at NSF, from policy changes and clarifications, to new systems for proposal submission, and NSF in-person and online outreach events, the Division of Institution and Award Support (DIAS) produces the quarterly Proposal & Award Policy Newsletter.

The latest version of the newsletter, which includes instructions for subscribing to the newsletter, can be found here: There is also an online repository of all of the issues of the Proposal & Award Policy newsletter.

Be sure to share this resource with your colleagues and your institution’s Sponsored Projects Office.

Meet DEB: Kendra McLauchlan


Kendra McLauchlan


Name: Kendra McLauchlan, Ecosystem Science Program Officer

Education: B.A. Carleton College, M.S. and Ph.D. University of Minnesota

Home Institution: Kansas State University

Tell us about your research: I am a paleoecosystem ecologist, so I reconstruct past ecosystems, usually by deciphering records preserved in soils, sediments, leaves, and wood. My research questions tend to center around controls on long-term nitrogen cycling, changing disturbance regimes (particularly fire regimes), and how fires and ecosystems interact over space and time. I have worked mostly in the upper Midwestern U.S. because of the solid foundation of paleoecology and abundance of good kettle lakes in that region. I am starting to work in the coniferous forests of the western U.S. as well because of the urgent questions about fire in those systems. My approach is solidly empirical: I generate new datasets and synthesize large datasets to understand ecosystem processes.

What made you want to serve NSF? Being a rotator at NSF had not really been on my radar, but I’ve always enjoyed panel service and admired the gold standard of merit review that NSF upholds. When this opportunity came up, there was an overwhelming amount of support from my colleagues, lab members, friends, and family. The work atmosphere is positive and fun, and the new building in Alexandria is gorgeous.

What are you most looking forward to during your tenure at NSF? Working with talented people across different scientific disciplines, on a shared mission of enabling cutting-edge science. That shared mission can be elusive to find at a university. There are so many creative and interesting types of science, and so many different funding opportunities. It will be really rewarding to help support the broader research community of ecosystem ecologists, particularly with the sometimes difficult process of developing ideas into fundable proposals. That, and panel dinners!

PAPPG Updates

As happens every year around this time, there’s a new version of the Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide, or PAPPG (NSF 18-1). This year’s iteration includes changes to the Budget Justification, new requirements in the Project Description, and templates for Collaborators & Other Affiliations Information (just to name a few). Check out a summary of the significant changes from prior versions, and clarifications found in the new PAPPG here:

The guidelines in NSF 18-1 apply for proposals submitted or due, or awards made, on or after January 29, 2018. For instance, starting today (January 29, 2018) any RAPID or EAGER proposals intended for DEB would list the NSF 18-1 PAPPG program announcement number on the proposal cover page.

The PAPPG contains the full set of general guidelines to PIs, and includes everything from proposal preparation to award reporting and close-out. Many program specific solicitations will reference the PAPPG for instructions on proposal submission, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with this document and make sure that your Sponsored Projects Office is aware of this new version.

DEB Numbers: FY 2017 Wrap-Up

Fiscal year 2017 (FY 2017) officially closed out on September 30. Now that we are past our Fall panels, we have a chance to look back and report on the DEB Core Program merit review and funding outcomes for FY 2017.

This post follows the format we’ve used in previous years. For a refresher, and lengthier discussions of the inner workings of the metrics, you can visit the FY 2016, FY 2015, FY 2014, and FY 2013 numbers.

FY 2017 Summary Numbers

The charts below all reflect DEB Core Program projects through each stage of the review process: preliminary proposals, full proposals, and awards.

DEB reviewed 1384 preliminary proposals received under the DEB Core Programs solicitation and LTREB solicitation in January 2017, about 28% of which were invited to the full proposal stage.

The preliminary proposal invitees were joined at the full proposal stage by 1) Direct submissions to DEB under the CAREER, OPUS, and RCN solicitations, and 2) Projects shared for co-review by another NSF program. Altogether, 514 full proposals were reviewed in DEB during the Fall of 2017 (this includes the OPUS, CAREER, RCN, and co-reviews).

From this pool of full proposals, DEB made awards to 119 projects. Below, we present and discuss the Division-wide success rate and some select project demographics. The demographic numbers are presented as proportions for comparison across the review stages.

Success Rate

Success Rates 17

Figure 1: DEB Core Program success rates from fiscal year 2007 through the present. Prior to fiscal year 2012, there were two rounds of full proposal competition per fiscal year. Preliminary proposals were first submitted in January 2012, initiating the 2-stage review process and leading to the fiscal year 2013 award cohort.

Calculation Notes:

Preliminary proposal success rate is calculated as the number of invitations made divided by the number of preliminary proposals submitted.

Full proposal success rate is calculated as the number of awards made, divided by the number of full proposals reviewed, including OPUS, CAREER, and RCNs.

Note that post-2012, under the preliminary proposal system, the set of full proposals reviewed is ~80% invited full proposals and ~20% CAREER, OPUS, RCN and co-reviewed proposals, the latter of which were exempt from the preliminary proposal stage.

Overall success rate is calculated as the number of awards made divided by the total number of distinct funding requests (i.e., the sum of preliminary proposals submitted plus the exempt CAREER, OPUS, RCN, and co-reviewed full proposals).

Reminder: Elevated success rates (in 2009 and 2012) were due to:

  • a one-time ~50% increase in funding for FY2009 (the ARRA economic stimulus funding) without which success would have been ~13-15%; and,
  • a halving of proposal submissions in FY2012 (the first preliminary proposal deadline replaced a second full proposal deadline for FY2012), without which success would have been ~8-9%.

Individual and Collaborative Projects

As a reminder to readers: the gap between the proportion of single investigator projects in the preliminary proposal and full proposal stages is due to the single-investigator proposals in the CAREER and OPUS categories. The CAREER and OPUS proposals are not subject to the preliminary proposals. . The absence of CAREER and OPUS proposals at the preliminary proposal stage lowers the single investigator proportion of the preliminary proposal counts relative to the historical full proposal baseline.

Single investigators 17

Figure 2: The proportion of DEB Core Program projects lead by a single PI over time and at the different stages of merit review.

The proportion of collaborative proposals in our award portfolio rebounded from last year’s drop and is near the all-time high for both full proposals and awards. This is consistent with the general trend toward greater collaboration over the past decade and beyond.

Collab 17

Figure 3: The proportion of DEB Core Program projects with two or more different institutional participants over time and at the different stages of merit review.

Readers may notice that the collaborative and single-investigator groupings don’t sum to 100%. The remainders are intra-institutional multi-PI arrangements; such projects are certainly intellectual collaborations, but they are not a “collaborative project” per the NSF PAPPG definition (Figure 3).

Early Career Scientists

The best identifier of researcher career stage is the difference between the year that the PI obtained their Ph.D. (as self-reported by the PI) and the submission date. This “Degree Age” metric can be used as a proxy for how long each individual has been in the population of potential PIs.

PI degree age profile 17

Figure 4: Distribution of degree ages among PIs on DEB Core Program full proposal submissions.

PI degree age success rate for full 17

Figure 5: Full proposal success rates for PIs on DEB Core Program proposals by degree age. Figure displays annual data and a 5-year mean for the period of the preliminary proposal system in DEB.

Gender & Predominantly Undergraduate Institution (PUI) Status

famle PIs 17

PUIs 17

Figure 6: The representation of female PIs and predominantly undergraduate institutions in DEB Core Program proposals and awards. These two groups were noted by the community as groups of concern that would be potentially impacted by the pre-proposal system.

Concluding Thoughts

This concludes our 5th fiscal year wrap-up. This series originally started in 2013 to track metrics some PIs thought would be sensitive to preliminary proposal implementation in 2012. However, given our move to a no-deadline model and the elimination of the preliminary proposal system, next year’s fiscal year wrap-up may look a little different. We still plan on reporting our funding rates but the other metrics will change.

Shutdown. Here’s What That Means.

As you probably know from the news, Congress failed to pass a budget to fund government operations. That means federal agencies must now begin the process of shutting down all operations until further notice. We have 4 hours today to conduct an “orderly shutdown” which allows us to set our email ‘away’ messages and post this information to our blog before we are required to cease all government activities.

Program Officers and administrators will be prohibited from performing any government work including reading and/or responding to any phone calls or emails. Additionally, you will not have access to government systems like Fastlane or The building will be closed to all visitors and we won’t be able to communicate with you again until the shutdown has ended.