Workshops and RCNs: an Explainer


Modern science is characterized by a proliferation of ideas, data, papers, and models. Amid all this research activity, there is an increasing need to synthesize research findings, to bridge ideas, and direct new research around certain important areas. To catalyze these efforts, NSF offers two funding mechanisms: workshops and Research Coordination Networks (RCNs). Some of the most interesting ideas in DEB are emerging out of these workshops and RCNs.

Your research area may benefit from a workshop or RCN if:

*you have reason to believe the research field has become stuck in some way

*you notice different groups are studying the same thing but speaking different languages

*variation in methods seem to be hampering progress

What do POs look for in an RCN or workshop?

A good workshop or RCN proposal starts with a good idea. From there, we like to see a well-articulated need to bring people together around a novel topic and to meet outside of regularly scheduled annual meetings or recurring workshops. The proposal should include a solid plan for accomplishing the integration, and an outline of the products that will benefit the larger research community. Keep in mind that RCNs are for coordination of research, not conducting the research itself.

There is a huge diversity in how workshops and RCNs can function. These awards allow for a lot of creativity and outside-the-box thinking is highly encouraged. A wide range of approaches are suitable for workshop goals, including methods comparisons, database creation, and conceptual synthesis. Sometimes several approaches are necessary to accomplish the research coordination.

How are RCNs similar or different from workshops?

1. Duration and scope.

A single workshop can be a great way to test the waters and gauge community interest, or accomplish a single, focused goal. Another possibility is a recurring workshop that provides a critical piece of training not widely available elsewhere. RCNs are designed for longer-term, multi-year efforts that will take a sustained drive to accomplish. RCNs usually need to have a larger research community in mind, trajectory for the work, and a steering committee who can keep the network on track.

This “larger research community” we’re referring to is what sets RCNs apart from regular workshops. Instead of bringing together the same like-minded colleagues, RCNs usually bring together scientists and scholars from a variety of backgrounds who would not otherwise interact.

2. The review process.

Workshop proposals under $100,000 are not subject to peer-based merit review. RCNs and large workshop proposals are evaluated by the NSF merit review process using ad hoc or panel review, or both. In both RCNs and workshops, the need for intellectual synthesis must be demonstrated and the mechanism for accomplishing this goal must be clearly described. For PIs accustomed to writing research proposals, this is a shift in focus. The proposal may require an organizational chart, a list of initial participants, descriptions of workshop activities, and clear mechanisms for assessment. Successful proposals generally have a plan for recruiting early career or underrepresented scientists. These elements in the proposal indicate if the synthesis effort is likely to be successful or not.

Why is it important to contact your PO BEFORE you submit an idea for an RCN/workshop?

Unlike regular research proposals, only a handful of workshop or RCN proposals are submitted each year to a program. Thus, it is important for the POs to recognize which research areas may be most suitable for synthesis, the depth of support for these areas, and the process behind developing the proposals that are submitted. Additionally, POs can help guide the PI toward “best practices” for these efforts, and help make sure that PIs are prepared for the time and intellectual commitment required for effective leadership of an RCN or workshop. We also suggest broadly reaching out in your research community or to other PIs who have led a workshop or RCN and inviting speakers and primaries who are diverse and representative of the community at large.

Things to think about before contacting the PO:

    • What need in the research community is being addressed by the RCN/workshop?
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • What would a successful outcome look like and who would benefit from these outcome(s)?

Take home points: The most important point is that these awards fund synthesis efforts. Our science needs these more than ever right now. DEB is currently accepting both workshop proposals and RCN submissions.