What exactly is a “core program” versus a “special program” anyway?

/TLDR Summary

This post discusses the general definitions of, relationships between, and some practical implications for the menagerie of DEB funding opportunities.

The short answer to the title question(s) is that “core programs” are the relatively permanent opportunities that support “bread and butter” research grants for specific fields of inquiry – the stuff that broadly keeps research running.  “Special programs” also support research grants but are more targeted to specific sets of questions, may represent emerging research areas, often have a limited lifespan, may be cooperative among and managed outside of a single Division at NSF, and often draw from a budget separate from those of the core programs. However, these are not absolute definitions: sometimes special programs attain a degree of permanence and sometimes core programs are canceled. More often, core programs morph (and the name may change) along with a field to incorporate new techniques and address new questions (though we do not imply that is a simple or painless process). For many years, special programs (and their budgets) were merged into core programs once new ideas had become established. With growing budgets throughout NSF, we could then launch new generations of special programs.  With flat budgets, our challenge is to promote advances in established fields while maintaining a diverse portfolio of projects in emerging research areas. The next generation of special programs is possible only if other special programs wind down, freeing up their budgets. If the questions and concepts generated by the special program have helped move one or more fields and worked their way into existing core programs then the program has helped us achieve NSF’s mission.

In addition to the core programs and special programs, DEB supports a variety of other opportunities for research and education in environmental biology, which complement the core and special programs.

Disclaimer on applicability of the concepts in this post

There is no NSF agency-wide arbitrator assigning “core program” and “special program” labels to each and every funding opportunity.  As far as usage goes, they are semi-codified in the Division of Environmental Biology via our unified “DEB Core Programs” solicitation but the interpretation of these terms will assuredly vary elsewhere in NSF, including elsewhere in BIO.  Ultimately, “core program” and “special program” designations are terms of convenience.  DEB uses these particular terms because NSF supports a very large and constantly changing array of funding opportunities and it is helpful to have concise terms that differentiate these opportunities.

Readers may encounter other terms for “core program proposals” outside of DEB, such as “unsolicited proposals” or “investigator initiated proposals”; both are used with approximately the same intent but can lack clarity if attached to DEB funding opportunities. The term “unsolicited proposal” leads to wonderfully Orwellian sentences like:  “See the DEB solicitation NSF ##-### for instructions for unsolicited proposals.” Likewise, those of you who poke around NSF’s webpages will come across references to “investigator initiated proposals.”  Which of your proposals cannot fit that descriptor?

Thinking about programs in terms of management

It helps to understand the “core program”/”special program” divide in DEB if you first understand that NSF is not a monolithic entity.  NSF contains a hierarchy of management units from the top-level Director’s office down to Divisions and sub-Division that represent specific areas of research and education. Each unit has a fair degree of autonomy within the broad framework of the agency’s mission and basic operating practices.  Individual grant-making programs are distributed among these management units with some being entirely within a single unit at a single level in the hierarchy and others being cooperative efforts across two or more units and engaging several research and education specializations.

The Division of Environmental Biology is sub-divided into four units, called clusters:

  • Ecosystem Science Cluster
  • Evolutionary Processes Cluster
  • Population and Community Ecology Cluster
  • Systematics and Biodiversity Science Cluster

CorevSpec0While there is plenty of overlap and exchange between them, this organizational structure identifies four distinct research areas in environmental biology that map pretty well onto major sub-fields of biology.  Of course there are other ways to slice and dice it but this formulation currently works both topic-wise and in balancing the distribution of demand across clusters.

Each of the clusters in DEB manages review of several types of proposals in their subject matter. The vast majority of these proposals focus on basic research in the “core” areas.  Some, however, take different approaches to address issues of interest to researchers in those areas.

That’s the simple view.  In reality and because of convenience or history — seemingly not because of common sense — each cluster provides a home to one or more “special programs” not necessarily aligned with the subject-matter of the cluster. And, to make things even more complicated, each “special program” can also entertain typical research grants as well as some other proposal types.  These are the exceptions, though.

In this post, we illustrate a framework for understanding this variety of funding opportunities by dividing up a figure of a hypothetical DEB cluster[i].

We’ll start by identifying some of the funding opportunities that share intellectual space with the core programs but do not support typical research grants. Then, we’ll look at the composition of the core programs and special programs. We’ll wrap up by touching on a few other pieces related to these funding opportunities but beyond the DEB clusters.

The first encounter many early career environmental biologists have with DEB is the submission of Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants (DDIGs).  DDIG proposals are a unique form of support: they follow a specific solicitation, are a long-standing funding opportunity, and are reviewed in panels organized by cluster – all attributes that typify what core programs are designed to consider. But, DDIGs are of very limited size and specific scope (improvement of an existing dissertation project).  Their purpose is to enhance a graduate student’s education, which is quite different from a “bread and butter” research grant to a faculty PI.  And, while similar opportunities can be found in several other NSF divisions, DDIGs are not available for all NSF-supported disciplines. Thus, DDIGs are neither “core programs” nor “special programs”- they’re a category unto themselves.


DEB clusters also handle a variety of other small or unique funding requests.  The major unifying factor is that they are generally subject to internal, rather than external, merit review; thus, decision-making is on a case-by-case basis.  Two types, RAPIDs and EAGERS, are for research grants but subject to criteria laid out in the NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG) regarding size, duration, and circumstances of the request.  Requests to support conferences, symposia, or other scientific gatherings are also often reviewed internally but even large conference requests (which do require external review) are not considered research. Finally, in this other request category, we have supplements which are small increases to existing awards for a specific activity.  The largest volume of supplements in DEB are for education and public engagement activities while others are granted to support attendance at conferences or other justified needs.


The four DEB clusters each house one or two named programs specific to their sub-fields:

Some of you may think about DEB in terms of just the four clusters and wonder why we are making a distinction between cluster and program here. Officially, these are the six programs through which regular research grant proposals in DEB are reviewed, awarded, and managed; you are likely to encounter this list when preparing a proposal in FastLane.  Any proposal submitted directly to the DEB Core Programs Solicitation prompts the PI to select one of these six programs for initial proposal delivery. After submission, Program Officers may recommend that the proposal be transferred to a different program, where the proposal would be better suited (i.e., more likely to be favorably reviewed).


However, there are other paths by which a proposal can enter the core programs for review. NSF supports several NSF-wide opportunities that are not limited to a certain field of research but instead target a specific type of submitter (e.g., RUIs for Primarily Undergraduate Institutions or CAREER proposals for tenure-track Assistant Professors) or a non-traditional approach (e.g., Research Coordination Networks (RCNs) for networking and synthesis).  Even though these opportunities are named and appear as separate programs with unique submission instructions, the review and funding of the proposals is distributed to the appropriate Divisions and clusters across NSF.  When such proposals are received and identified as relevant to DEB they are assigned to a cluster, and reviewed alongside proposals submitted directly to the DEB core programs, with reviewers receiving instruction on additional considerations required by the opportunity.  DEB has been a leader in developing these opportunities, which allow for special consideration of unique proposals.  For example, the Research Coordination Networks (RCN) solicitation achieved early success in DEB before programs around NSF adopted the concept. The Opportunities for Promoting Understanding and Synthesis (OPUS) and Long-term Research in Environmental Biology (LTREB) solicitations are based in DEB. These, too, target specific approaches and are reviewed alongside proposals submitted directly to the DEB core programs, with reviewers receiving instruction on additional considerations required by the opportunity.

The core programs also co-review proposals submitted to funding opportunities in other clusters, Divisions, or Directorates.  In these cases, proposals received by another program are found to have relevance to a core DEB program and DEB program officers agree that the expertise of their program would benefit the review.  These incoming co-reviews may be taken to a DEB panel and/or additional individual reviewers may be assigned by the original program at the recommendation of the DEB program officer. When applicable, DEB seeks co-review from other programs for proposals we have received.  The decision to seek co-review is made by the program officer managing a particular proposal and only happens with agreement from the program officer of the other program. While you are encouraged to indicate potential co-review programs, it is not guaranteed to happen. At the end of the co-review process, each of the reviewing programs may or may not choose to provide funding for the proposal, which does not appear to create a disadvantage for the PI.


As mentioned at the start of this post, “special programs” are research funding opportunities that often have several of the following features: addresses specific sets of questions, represents emerging research areas, has a limited lifespan, is explicitly interdisciplinary, draws on a dedicated programmatic budget.  These programs hold separate panels and thus do not compete directly with ‘core’ proposals.

DEB houses and manages four such special programs, which primarily support researchers who would otherwise seek support from DEB core programs: Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER), Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases (EEID), Assembling the Tree of Life (AToL) Genealogy of Life (GoLife),  and Dimensions of Biodiversity (Dimensions). Other Divisions and Directorates may contribute resources to managing and funding these special programs and call attention to the opportunities on their websites, but all the paperwork passes through DEB. A fifth special program, the long-running Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH), is organized jointly by several directorates with the paperwork rotating between them.  In the BIO Directorate, CNH is managed by DEB.


There are also DEB-relevant cross-cutting special programs with budget and management responsibilities outside of DEB, which DEB staff contribute to in conjunction with staff from the other affiliated offices. Examples of these cross-cutting special programs are Macrosystems Biology, much of the NSF-wide Sustainability portfolio (SEES), and biological synthesis centers like NESCent and SESYNC. For these cross-cutting special programs, funding often comes from sources outside of DEB but within the BIO Directorate (such as the Emerging Frontiers Division and Division of Biological Infrastructure) or from units in other Directorates (e.g., GEO). Any program featured on the BIO Directorate Emerging Frontiers (EF) webpage is what DEB would consider a special program.  For all of these cross cutting special programs, DEB program officers bring relevant expertise, suggest reviewers and participate in award decisions.


Lastly, from time to time opportunities are announced by a mechanism called “Dear Colleague Letters” (DCLs).  These DCLs are not new funding opportunities per se; rather, they are announcements that advertise how an existing funding opportunity may be particularly relevant or timely for a specific area of research.  The main benefit of DCLs is that they allow flexibility to attract submissions on specific topics when the timeline is too short for NSF to develop a special program or integrate a new topic into a core program description.  For instance, DCLs relevant to DEB researchers are often released shortly after major natural and human disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, and oil spills.  In these cases they would direct potential PIs to consult with Program Officers about RAPID proposals.  DCLs can also be used to gauge interest in particular emerging areas before committing time and resources to developing new programs focused on those areas.  In this way, Dear Colleague Letters act as a sort of overlay on top of core programs, special programs, and other requests.


There you have it, a general illustration of the variety of funding opportunities available to researchers affiliated with any cluster in the Division of Environmental Biology[i].

Confused? Ask us!

Clearly, this post cannot exhaustively describe all of the individual opportunities which we think relevant to many of you. For that we now have a resources and links page to help point you in the right directions.  But, if you come across a program you are curious about, just ask us and we’ll tell you what we know or go find out if we don’t.  You can ask us here on the blog comments, you can call or email DEB, or you can reach out to any of the Program Officers listed right at the top of the web page describing the opportunity.

[i] Size of block sections added to the figure throughout this post are an approximate ordinal ranking of effort expended by cluster personnel on each opportunity type but are not a quantitative guide to any specific metrics (e.g., proposal load, budgets, success rates, etc.). The size of the Dear Colleague Letter overlay has no meaning except to touch part of each funding opportunity block to which recent Dear Colleague Letters have referred.

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