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.