Open Thread: Snowquester Edition


Commenting has been a little slower than we were bracing for given the levels of participation on other blogs talking about DEB topics, or even other federal research agency blogs. In response to a couple of comments about discussing broader issues, we wanted to open up the floor to hear from you on anything DEB-related you want to discuss.  We included some links and a synopsis of two topics making the rounds, Open Access and Sequestration, below the fold but other topics are welcome too.

The recently released OSTP (White House) directive on Open Access for federally-supported research, read NSF’s official statement here, starts the ball rolling on policies to ensure publications and resources produced with Federal funds are made freely available. While OA is something that has been on the radar for a while, putting a formal plan in place promises an exciting few months.  We will try to let you know via the blog of opportunities to contribute to the official discussion. In the meantime, informal discussion is welcome.

It sounds like most of you are already aware of the government-wide budget sequester and quite a few are talking about it: here and here and here.  For those who haven’t seen it, here’s the official NSF notice on impacts.  We wanted to add a little bit to the sequestration chatter from the program perspective.

There are two separate “Federal budget” happenings related to the current fiscal year.  While the sequester has gotten a lot of the press lately, we do not have an actual budget for FY2013.  Instead, we are operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that runs until March 27th.  The current CR essentially says agencies have the same budgets they did in FY2012 but can only use those budgets until March 27th. Something has to happen before that date (either another CR with a later end date, or enacting an actual budget) to enable the government to continue operating beyond the 27th.  Whatever is done to keep the government running through the end of the year could potentially decrease, increase, or keep flat funding levels from FY2012.

Because of the FY2013 budget uncertainties, we have been working with only 80% of what we had in FY2012. This is nothing new; we have had a CR most years for the last decade or so and each time operate with a reduced budget until we have authority to carry us through the year.  But, it is important because it interacts with the sequester.

According to the official NSF notice on impacts, the sequester will take ~5% from 100% of the FY2012 funding level.  It is not a decrease out of the 80% we have been working with in FY2013.  The practical message is that the sequester does not mean cuts to any DEB awards that were made in prior years and is not canceling new awards NSF has already made this year. Awards recommendations that are working their way through the system will also not be impacted by the sequester. There is even a potential, but no guarantee, that once all is said and done we will be able to support a few more awards later in the year. The actual impact in terms of gross number of awards, number of PIs supported, etc. in DEB won’t be known until after September 30th, but keep in mind that 1000 fewer awards across the agency is only an estimate.

That’s it from us for now.  You are welcome to bring up anything broadly DEB-related in the comments.  Remember, you can comment anonymously – none of the identifying information needs to be filled out.

9 thoughts on “Open Thread: Snowquester Edition

  1. Awards recommendations that are working their way through the system will also not be impacted by the sequester.

    Alan, John et al., many of us are in a gray zone where we have been informed that our proposals will be funded if there is money. If I’m reading the above correctly, you are suggesting that those proposals may actually be funded after all, and that there may be a few pick ups later in the year for people who have heard nothing at this stage. If my interpretation is correct, that is very good news. At what point does DEB expect to have enough stability to actually start making the next wave of phone calls to people? Some of us are facing personnel decisions very soon.

    I am a little concerned that the CR might expire without another deal in place. At this point I don’t trust this Congress to accomplish anything. Other than an impromptu forced vacation during the hight of panel season, what would this mean for DEB?

    • Q’s about individual proposals should be directed to your PO. Folks who have been recommended for an award or decline up to now know it. There shouldn’t be any PIs who have heard “nothing” on their August submissions. As we said, “There is even a potential, but no guarantee, that once all is said and done we will be able to support a few more awards later in the year.”
      Professional news-media outlets are likely to report any FY2013 developments well before the details get down to us.

  2. As I mentioned in a recent post, I’m very concerned about how the new funding structure will affect early-career researchers. As last year’s numbers come in, from a post by Prof-LikeSubstance above, it seems as though ECR’s did less well than average in terms of funding rates. Add that to the fact that there is now a limit of two proposals per investigator, and we have half as many opportunities to submit in a year, and funding rates continue to decline, and it all adds up to the fact that the funding system I am entering is not the one that my tenure committee navigated. It is very unclear to me whether the expectations for tenure-track faculty will change to reflect the increased difficulty in getting funded.

    I’m not sure what the solution is, given reviewer limitations, though perhaps a modification of the current structure would work. One big (related) concern is that grants that are invited for full, but rejected at that stage, must go back in as pre-proposals. I am curious to see how many of those will be rejected, simply for stochastic reasons. It seems like wasted effort to turn a full proposal back into a preproposal when there is limited scope for addressing reviewer concerns. What if there was a possibility for a limited number of full-proposal submissions in January, for those strong-but-not-quite-there full-length July submissions? It would help reduce the potential issues of going from pre to full to pre again, and it would give us early investigators an extra shot to turn things around each year, which could potentially speed up our time to funding. The fact that ECR proposals did well in the pre- phase but not in the full phase suggests that having more opportunities to develop and submit full-length proposals would be especially useful.

  3. It sounds like programs that haven’t yet made awards will be funding a much smaller fraction of proposals that otherwise would have been funded. I’m curious to know whether, in the next fiscal year (whether or not there is a fix to the sequester), NSF will work to fund this years’ backlog of excellent but unfunded proposals, or just ask everyone to resubmit for a new round. The latter would be a disproportionate burden on faculty members from PUIs, for whom mounting a single proposal is a often challenge at the institutional level.

  4. I’m curious about the number of pre-proposal submissions this year as compared to January of 2012. Can you provide the submission data, perhaps broken down by each of the four clusters or are these data not yet allowed to be disclosed? Is the percentage of pre-proposals that will be invited to the full proposal stage likely to change from last year?

  5. Pingback: Friday links: Big Data or Pig Data? | Dynamic Ecology

  6. Since you’re interested in feedback: could you do some posts for early stage researchers about how things work in DEB? For example, who are you as people — permanent NSF staff, visitors, or what? What does “DEB Science Staff” really mean? What are the various steps in the proposal process? What happens on a panel? The level of the writing has so far been aimed at those already established and used to interacting with DEB personnel. Since those of us who are grad students and post-docs have not had much (or any) direct interaction with NSF, we don’t necessarily know things you assume your readers do. (And don’t forget that your blog readers are probably skewed younger/early career.)

    As for the new pre-proposal process, here’s one of my concerns: say I’m a grad student and I want to write an NSF proposal with a potential post-doc advisor to fund a post-doc position for myself. Since it takes at least a year (am I right? I’m not exactly sure on this…) from pre-proposal to money-in-hand, that means that I need to have identified my post-doc advisor and begun working with him/her on a pre-proposal, say, 15 months in advance of starting a post-doc. Okay. But now most folks actually defend in late spring or early fall. Let’s say I defend in early fall and want to be able to start my post-doc right away. That means that if funding becomes available in January and I won’t be able to actually start on it until September, that I need to start collaborating on a pre-proposal 15+9=24 months before I defend. I don’t think it’s reasonable for a grad student to conceive of and put together a compelling post-doc project a full two years before graduating/defending.

    Here’s another of my concerns: say I’m a woman (or a man) and I’d like to have a baby before I’m (or my partner is) too old to do so. If my due date happens to be in the fall, then it’s going to be very hard to put together a good pre-proposal. I’ll be a new parent at the due date. So I might try to put something together earlier. But I might be caught off-guard by a pre-term birth or pregnancy complications that make it impossible to work. So I’ll miss out on an entire year of funding possibility instead of just six months of possibility as was the case before.

    These are both early-career issues with the new once-per-year cycle that I haven’t seen addressed anywhere. I figure this is a good place to do so.

  7. Terry and Jacquelyn,
    We put a post up today that sets up the context for discussions about performance numbers. That’s a prelude for Monday when we will take another look at the data from the email blast DEB sent out in December. That blast (since updated) was relevant to both early career researchers and primarily undergraduate institutions.

    We’re always up for considering ways to improve on the process. Resubmissions are something we have thought about a lot. Downstream effects are big issues here. For instance, holding funds for a summer resubmission panel would require spending less on the fall panel, so more projects would be declined. Those could, of course, be revised and resubmitted to that reconsideration panel, but that seems like extra work for the PIs who were the most competitive. Another question is whether a system of resubmission without pre-proposals would relieve the “backlog of excellent but unfunded proposals.” Unless we are assuming that fewer new excellent ideas are coming in the next year, then that scenario just seems to push a bigger backlog on to each subsequent year. Beyond that, what criteria can be used to decide on re-invitations that are fair, consistent and do not simply shift the dynamics of review such that re-invites become de facto requirements before funding? Those are just some of the concerns we are grappling with.

    There is one program at NSF we know of, the Geography and Spatial Sciences program (GSS), trying out a once-a-year deadline with re-invites. We interact with those POs regularly and are big on sharing ideas and experiences with them- but they’re also a different research community (searching, we find only one indirect reference to their changes on a researcher’s blog).

  8. Thanks for the response. The transparency is great. As far as I’m concerned NSF has always been direct about the knowns and unknowns whenever I’ve called. I like that it’s in this venue for all to see, too.

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