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.

1. PIs who give back by reviewing, reviewing regularly, and (especially) reviewing even though they aren’t funded or applying for funding. POs don’t expect that every request to review a proposal or serve as a panelist will return a positive response.  We appreciate that there are lots of demands on scientists for professional service and certainly understand that there are times when declining is the only viable option. However, there’s a central record of each time a PI says “yes” or “no” to a request, and when we’re looking for help with reviews or panel service we’re often thankful to those of you who come back time and again, share your expertise, and do so even through dry spells or when you don’t apply for funding at all.

2. PIs who follow the solicitation instructions when preparing a proposal. It’s frustrating, even heartbreaking sometimes, when we have to return a potentially great project without review because it failed to meet a requirement of the Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG) or a specific solicitation. We’re thankful, however, for the vast majority of PIs who make it easy on us by following the stated requirements and submitting compliant proposals.

3. PIs who access the current version of the PAPPG or solicitation before calling or writing us with a question. We all know that NSF solicitations can be obtuse and POs are happy to clarify specific sections of a solicitation or any NSF policies.  But we’re limited in number compared to you so we’re especially thankful for those PIs who first try to find the simple answers themselves and for the super-users who learn the system and serve as a resource to their colleagues.

4. PIs who provide us with the proposal or award ID number when asking about a specific project. The FastLane number assigned to every proposal and award allows a PO to quickly pull up an electronic file (EJacket) of the entire history of a proposal or award, which we often need to answer a question.  We’re thankful for the PIs who provide the FastLane number up front, whether at the outset of a phone call or in the subject line of the email. You are saving us a lot of time and getting you a faster response to your questions.

5. PIs who suggest eligible reviewers and give us sufficient information to find and verify them. The first place a PO looks for reviewers is the “single copy document” list of suggested reviewers submitted by the PI. We expect that you know more specifically than we do, who are the relevant experts in your field. We’re thankful for those PIs who make the job of tapping the relevant peer review expertise easier by providing several, complete, and eligible suggestions. Bigger smiles here when we see eight or so with their contact/web info, none of whom have clear conflicts of interest with the proposal.

6. PIs who update their lists of collaborators (to cover recent work and remove expired associations). The list of “Collaborators and Other Affiliations” is used to avoid requesting reviews from individuals who have a conflict of interest with the proposal. These lists can get quite long in an ever-more-networked-and-collaborative research enterprise, and the extent of conflicts of interest (COI) is something we hear about a lot. An up-to-date collaborator list means fewer good reviewers unnecessarily barred from contribution and fewer reviews declined or tossed out because of late-breaking conflict discoveries (with the harm being fewer reviews for the particular proposal). So, we are especially thankful to the PIs who curate their collaborator lists, who remove expired relationships, and who account for their most recent collaborations whenever they submit a proposal. (Tip: make sure co-authors on any recent publications listed in your biosketch are included on your collaborator list.)

7. PIs who submit their proposals early. The planning and foresight to achieve early submission can save a proposal: it can give you a chance to catch an error, ensure there is time for any last-minute questions to be answered, and offer a window to recover from a disruption to your plans. In truly exceptional circumstances beyond the control of the PI or institution (e.g., major power loss or weather emergency) a PO can approve a brief extension on a proposal submission deadline, but the period of recovery after a major event is often a less-than-optimal environment for getting your best work in. We’re thankful for the PIs who plan to, and do, hit that secure spot between 1 and 4 weeks before a deadline for submission of their proposals.

8. PIs who download and proof their proposals before submitting them. This follows closely on the previous item. FastLane provides a quick and easy way to download a pdf of any part of a proposal or the entire package before submission, so you can see what it will look like to us here at NSF and all the reviewers.  FastLane urges all PIs to do that examination prior to submission because the system doesn’t check content or display; it only confirms that something is entered into the required fields. We’re thankful for the PIs who proof their proposals and make changes before submission because we truly don’t like having to return a proposal without review because of an avoidable error.

9. PIs who designate a point person to talk to (and set up an auto-reply) when they’re out of town and off the grid in case there are any proposal emergencies. We check all proposals for compliance, and contact PIs for any problems that need fixing, typically within two weeks of a submission deadline to avoid having to return a proposal without review. There are other times in the process too (e.g., managing active awards, finalizing recommendations) where there is a need to rapidly contact a PI. When attempts to reach the PI fail we try contacting the authorized person in the institution’s sponsored grants office (SRO) who electronically signed off on the proposal. We are thankful for those PIs who delegate responsibility when they will be unreachable (especially the two weeks before or after a proposal deadline) and make sure their SRO knows who is able to handle any issues with that proposal in their absence.

10. PIs who don’t let their annual reports become overdue (and get them in early if so noted in the award letter from your PO). Annual reports are incredibly important; the regular documentation of progress is a requirement hard-wired into our system that must be complete before additional funds can be granted to anyone associated with the project. This is critical for you as the PI in the case of continuing grants where we cannot issue the annual funding increment until the annual report is submitted and approved by the PO. But, in all cases it also touches your wider network of colleagues: when annual or final reports become overdue it halts any actions on all linked awards (i.e., any award that has a PI or co-PI in common). Even in completely separate programs in other directorates, their increments, supplements, and new awards can be delayed because of missing reports elsewhere in the agency. For some awards made late in our fiscal year a report is needed even earlier than the due date indicated in Research.Gov (already 90 days before the award anniversary) which may be only 4, 5, or 6 months after you actually began your project. We are thankful for the PIs who submit their reports by the listed deadline and especially those who follow any special instructions about early deadlines we send each PI in a congratulatory email at the time an award is made official.

Happy Thanksgiving to all our PIs, from the crew at DEB!

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