In our prior post, we explored the sequence of steps in the review process that necessitates the long lead times between proposal receipt and when PIs hear back about recommendations. In this follow-on piece, we look at another aspect:
Why are the program dues dates on that particular date? Why not my preferred date?
When we looked at the timeline for the DEB Core Programs, we explained how the time between submission and getting reviews back is filled with several steps, but we haven’t yet looked at why the panels are in April and October and not, for instance, February and August. Our initial timeline for that one program looked like this:
So why are the dates there and not elsewhere? For the most part, we build our Due dates to minimize the time it takes to process proposals across all the programs in DEB – thus we need to spread out when different programs are due.
Let’s take a look at what else is going on ….
Other DEB Programs
Of course, the DEB Core Programs aren’t the only funding opportunities with review and management in DEB. We discussed previously, and provide a list on our resources page, the variety of other programs and funding opportunities that are under the DEB umbrella. These other opportunities go through the same general review process. We can stack those review schedules with our Core Programs leading to a DEB calendar something like this (see image above for color code labels):
The Core Programs take a lot of resources. It’s helpful not to have a whole lot of other things requiring attention at the same time, like when everyone is checking submissions or processing recommendations (otherwise it all just stakes longer). Note, for example, the general time for compliance checking DDIGs overlaps with the full proposal panel dates. Since DDIGs are a smaller opportunity (in both proposal length and submission volume) and not every program is in a panel every day for those 4-or-so weeks there is an opportunity in the gaps for the programs to make headway on the initial steps of DDIG review before having to refocus on the final steps of full proposal review in mid-November. Panels and the processes involved in organizing the panels leave some gaps where other things can get done, but you’ll notice that there’s almost no overlap between any periods of compliance checking or post-panel decision making because each has an amazing ability to consume gaps to the exclusion of the other.
Also, if you’re thinking this looks a little lopsided, that’s also by design. Next we have to look at…
Further Review Schedule Constraints
Academic Year Considerations
Because of the regional, state, and institutional variation in academic year schedules we accept as a given that almost any date will be “bad” for at least some portion of the community because of the start or end of classes, exams, mid-terms, breaks, closures, etc. Beyond that however, there is a big chunk of the year, roughly mid-May to mid-August and another smaller period from late-
November to early-January that we purposely avoid as much as possible. For a very large proportion of you in the DEB communities these are: prime field season and/or the only time you aren’t teaching and can get actual science done and/or when the kids are out of school and/or when your institution is periodically closed for cost saving and/or time you’re already traveling to meetings, etc.
These considerations affect the DEB staff and Program Officers too. And, the time just before the start of academic sessions is when most of the rotating Program Officers arrive from or return to their home institutions creating a regular brain drain and need for training. It helps to avoid mass personnel turnover in the middle of a major review process.
As much as possible, it is worthwhile for us to avoid scheduling the review processes across these months, but there’s a further reason to avoid those summer dates in particular.
Fiscal Year Considerations
As we noted very early on in this blog, DEB follows the Federal fiscal year (FY) which runs from Oct. 1 to Sep. 30 with the label (e.g., “FY2013”) matching the calendar year in which the fiscal year ends – Sep. 2013. This is important to this discussion because the processes of receiving and spending federal funds create some practical limits on attempts to move or shuffle pieces of the schedule.
The end of the day on September, 30 is a hard cut off; it’s not a point where “everything should be done but we have a few exceptions,” it’s the point where “even the exceptions must have been cleared”. And, that’s not just the scientific program review that needs to be complete; it’s also the administrative processes that come afterward. So, we have to back out our calendar from that September 30 date to create a buffer for the grant administrators (the crucially important folks we mentioned in the last post with whom your SRO works with on the nitty-gritty financial arrangements) in order to 1) give them a window to complete the regular steps in the award or decline process that cannot begin until after program review and 2) find and clear the exceptions. For us in the programs there comes a point each year, in early-to-mid-August, where all of the normal award recommendations must be finalized and anything left as an exception needs to be acutely explainable. Moving backward from the post-panel program recommendation stage, it means that panels in June and July are pushing the system limits (smaller competitions may squeeze through) and May is really the latest time for major review panels.
In our annual calendar, these considerations wind up looking like this[i]:
And, if that weren’t complicated enough, we’ve got one more level of consideration…
Programs Outside of DEB
As we discussed a couple of weeks back, there are hundreds of funding opportunities soliciting proposals for merit review across NSF. While they have distinct programmatic staff, these programs rely on some of the same central administrative support structures for electronic proposal receipt, providing meeting space, and completing the administrative steps beyond program review. Those central administrative support structures have fixed capacities. For example, panels have to be spread out to accommodate the numbers and sizes and lengths of panels within the supply of meeting space. The same principle applies to the availability of IT support for FastLane submission issues or grant administrators to process recommendations: if the capacity isn’t there at the moment it’s needed, there’s a big problem.
Thus, we have something of a game of musical chairs. Suppose we want to move a major deadline from January to February for panels in May? That might not work if whole swaths of Engineering and Geosciences are already there, occupying all of the NSF panel rooms.
The timing of program review cycles is the product of a series of considerations and trade-offs. It is not impossible to shift a review schedule, but the difficulty of doing so is proportionate to the proposal volume of the opportunity. Smaller opportunities can be moved relatively easily, as we recently did by shifting the DDIG schedule a month earlier. However, moving large programs is subject to considerations that extend beyond the PIs who apply to and Program Officers who manage that specific opportunity.
[i] Wonk moment: Is anyone else thinking that if we pasted this onto a cylinder it would become an interesting puzzle?