Who’s Afraid of Co-reviews?

Co-review is a common practice in DEB (and across NSF), but questions from the community suggest that having a proposal co-reviewed makes some of you apprehensive. In fact, you may ask yourself whether co-review will decrease the likelihood of getting fundedNot to worry – here are the basics:

What is co-review? Co-review is when more than one program (or cluster) reviews a proposal, generally in panel but occasionally using ad-hoc reviews.

Which proposals are co-reviewed? Projects that stand to advance the science funded by multiple programs are most commonly co-reviewed. Almost always, these are integrative or interdisciplinary studies.

How does co-review work? Typically, the program to which the proposal was submitted (i.e., the primary program) determines that there is significant overlap with another program or programs and invites the relevant program(s) to participate in the review process. This participation may range from simply suggesting ad hoc reviewers to taking the proposal to their own panel.

Can I decide where my proposal gets co-reviewed? At submission, you are welcome (but not required) to suggest other programs you believe to be relevant for co-review; you do so in the Cover Sheet portion of the proposal. We encourage you to discuss your research idea prior to submission with a Program Officer from each program that you regard as relevant for a potential co-review. You can do this by writing a 1–2-page description of what you have in mind and emailing it to a Program Officer in the cluster you think is most relevant.  POs like to hear what PIs are thinking about and they’ll help you figure out where to submit. Often, they can provide explicit guidance as to whether co-review is warranted, and with which programs. After submission, the (primary) program then decides whether to request a co-review from the programs that you’ve suggested.

What happens after co-review? If the proposal is favorably reviewed by one or both programs, either or both programs may choose to fund the project. Thus, one of the advantages of co-review is that multiple programs might be willing to help fund the proposal. Funding contributions can vary, but co-funding often allows DEB to support more principal investigators and more individual projects.

But isn’t it risky to expose my proposal to scrutiny by so many reviewers? As we all know, an important aspect of promoting the progress of science is getting fair, constructive feedback. For a subset of the proposals we receive, this can only be achieved by expert input and discussion reflecting the breadth of topics covered in the proposal (hence the co-review). A study on the outcomes of co-review at NSF was completed and found that success rates do not decrease as a result of the co-review process.

But what about the funding rates of co-reviewed proposals? As part of our award recommendation process, we regularly monitor funding rates of co-reviews, and we have no indication that co-reviewed proposals fare less well than non-co-reviewed proposals.

If the science truly does straddle multiple programs, projects are more likely to be fairly evaluated when experts from multiple disciplines can provide feedback. Even if the proposal is not funded, the advice from a diverse array of reviewers should help to strengthen any future submissions.

More questions about co-review? Contact a Program Officer! We’re happy to talk about your proposal.

Upcoming Webinar: Building Research Capacity of New Faculty in Biology (BRC-BIO)

Please join the Building Research Capacity of New Faculty in Biology (BRC-BIO) program for a webinar on Tuesday, May 10th, 2021 from 3:00 PM – 4:00 PM EDT. There will be a short presentation, followed by an open Q&A session with cognizant Program Officers.

BRC-BIO is a new NSF program intended to enhance research capacity and broaden participation among new faculty of biology at minority-serving institutions (MSIs), predominantly undergraduate institutions (PUIs), and other universities and colleges that are not among the nation’s most research-intensive and resourced institutions.

Some key information from the solicitation:

  • Primary investigators must be at the Assistant Professor rank (or tenure-track equivalent) with service for no more than 3 years at their current institution by the submission date.
  • Proposed projects should help enable the establishment of research programs that will be competitive for future research proposals to the NSF (e.g., CAREER) or other agencies. Projects should enrich undergraduate research experiences and thereby grow the STEM workforce.
  • Projects can include biology-focused research collaborations among those in academia, or partnerships with industry or other non-academic partners that advance the PI’s research program. 
  • Next submission window:  June 01 – June 30, 2022

Please register in advance for the webinar below, and share this invitation with anyone you think may be interested:


Click here for a recap of the previous webinars for the BRC-BIO program. If you have additional questions, please reach out to the BRC-BIO working group via email (BRC-BIO@nsf.gov).

Upcoming Virtual Office Hours: CAREER Proposals  

Join us Monday, May 9th, 1 – 2pm ET for DEB’s next Virtual Office Hour. Program Officers will provide an overview of the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program (NSF 22-586). Representatives from each of the four DEB core programs will be available for questions. To participate, please use the registration link below. Upcoming DEB Virtual Office Hours are announced ahead of time on DEBrief, so we suggest you also sign up for blog notifications. 


If you can’t make it to this or any future office hours, don’t worry! Come back to the blog afterwards, as we post recaps and the presentation slides of all office hour sessions. Visit our Office Hours homepage for slideshows and recaps of past topics. 

Virtual Office Hours are on the second Monday of every month from 1 – 2pm ET. Below is a list of upcoming dates and topics (subject to change). Be sure to add them to your calendars and register ahead of time.       

Upcoming Office Hour Topics:                     

  • June 13: You’ve Been Awarded an NSF Grant, Now What?                    
  • July: No Virtual Office Hour 
  • August 8: International Collaboration 
  • September 12: Postdoc Research Fellowship 
  • October 17: How to Write a Great Proposal 
  • November 14: Opportunities for Research in Climate Change 
  • December 12: Upcoming Solicitations

4/11/22 Virtual Office Hours Recap – Research at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions

The Division of Environmental Biology (DEB) held its latest Virtual Office Hour on April 11, 2022. We host these office hours 1-2pm EST on the 2nd Monday of every month. There is a designated theme each time, but attendees are welcome to ask about other NSF-related topics. Program Officers from each of DEB’s clusters are present at each Virtual Office Hour, so a wide range of scientific perspectives are represented. This month’s topic was Research at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions.

The presentation and other documents are available here:

Slides (PDF)

PAPPG 22-1

DEB NSF webpage

Related links:

Facilitating Research at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (NSF 14-579)

Building Research Capacity for New Faculty in Biology (BRC-BIO; NSF 22-500) and related blog post

If you were unable to attend, here are some of the questions asked during the Q & A section:

Q: How much collaboration with other (non-PUI) institutions is allowed under a PUI grant? For example, if I wanted to take advantage of resources that I don’t have at my PUI, can I propose to accomplish some work in conjunction with a lab at a bigger institution?

A: Yes, such collaborations are accepted. There are several approaches to structuring a research project that involves PIs at different institutions, including a single award with sub-award(s) to collaborators’ institutions or an officially designated “Collaborative Research” proposal for multi-institutional collaboration with separate budgets and awards. If the PI for either proposal type is at a primarily undergraduate institution, they can add the “RUI” designation to their proposal. See the RUI solicitation for instructions on how to submit collaborative proposals that mix PUI and non-PUI institutions. 

Q: Are there opportunities for smaller-scale awards that might fit the workload and institutional contexts of primarily undergraduate institutions?

A: DEB does have a Small Grant designation, which you can read about in the core solicitation. These are proposals with budgets up to $200,000. You would designate your proposal with the prefix “SG:” in the title. Reviewers and panelists are given instructions about evaluating Small Grant proposals. The same merit review criteria are used (i.e., highest quality intellectual merit and broader impacts), but the scope and scale of Small Grants are more modest.

Q: Are the budgets for proposals from PUIs expected to be smaller?

A: For any proposal to any program, the main expectation is that the budget should align with the scope of work.

 Q: What is a Research Opportunity Award (ROA)?

A: ROAs are part of the same solicitation as RUI (14-579) Facilitating Research at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions. RUI proposals support PUI faculty in research that engages them in their professional field(s), builds capacity for research at their home institution, and supports the integration of research and undergraduate education. ROAs similarly support PUI faculty research, but these awards typically allow faculty to work as visiting scientists at research-intensive organizations where they collaborate with other NSF-supported investigators. ROAs are reviewed internally by NSF program officers.

Q: How do we find out each directorate’s deadline dates for RUI? Does DEB post these on a webpage typically?

A: Our core programs in DEB do not have deadlines. For any NSF program, check the solicitation to find information on deadlines.

Q: Can non-tenure track faculty at PUIs submit proposals?

A: Yes, if the school’s sponsored research office allows non-tenure track faculty to have principal investigator status.

Q: Can a PI on a grant with an ROA ask for another supplement?

A: Yes, it is possible to request additional supplements, whether those are Research Opportunity Awards, REUs, RAHSS, RET, etc. If you are worried that a second supplement might not be competitive, reach out first to the program officer managing your award.

Q: If an ROA is often a supplement to an existing NSF grant, do you submit after you’re awarded the other NSF grant?

A: Supplements (including REU, RET, RAHSS, ROA) can be included in an initial proposal submission or can be requested after an award has been made. Typically, ROAs provide support for a faculty at a PUI to collaborate with an existing awardee (regardless of the awardee institution type). The ROA proposal is submitted by the primary award principal investigator, on behalf of the putative ROA recipient.

Q: What opportunities are there for faculty at community colleges?

A: Community colleges/faculties are eligible to apply for almost all funding opportunities in the Biological Sciences Directorate. There are also other opportunities through the Division of Undergraduate Education in the Education and Human Resources Directorate. An example of one of these opportunities is the Advancing Innovation and Impact in Undergraduate STEM Education at Two-year Institutions of Higher Education.

Q: Do most grant opportunities intended for PUIs require preliminary data? Or is it recommended?

A: Preliminary data are not required for any grant opportunity, but preliminary data and prior work strengthen a proposal and the viability of the work proposed.  Note that the BRC-BIO program acknowledges that early-career investigators at institutions other than the most research intensive may have little capacity to collect preliminary data and the program seeks to help build and support that capacity.

Q: My teaching load is quite high. Is it possible to fund course releases during the academic year to allow more time for research?

A: NSF cannot directly pay for a course release for a PI or co-PI. However, salary support during the summer or academic months can be requested and provided as long as it is clearly described in your budget justification as reallocation of your time/responsibilities. We suggest that you work with your institution’s sponsored research officer, and if needed a program officer, to design and justify your budget.

Q: I’m wondering about the special proposal designations, like “SG” for small grant, “RUI” for research at primarily undergraduate institutions, “MCA” for Mid-Career Advancement. Is it possible for a proposal to have more than one designation?

A: Yes, a single proposal may have more than one designation. When deciding whether to apply a special designation, consider the criteria for that program and how well your proposal matches those criteria.

Q: Are proposals from PUIs as successful as those from other institutions, and what are the general success rates for proposals in DEB?

A: NSF has a new public award dashboard called NSF by the Numbers. You can use this dashboard to search and filter award data by directorate, institution type, and more.

Q: Can there be too high of a focus on broader impacts? We are (primarily) educators! It’s hard to squeeze that focus down to a small section of a grant. Do you have advice on the amount of space we devote to broader impacts vs. intellectual merit? Projects from PUIs have exceptional opportunities to generate broader impacts, particularly around student training and broadening participation. Is it possible for a proposal to be too heavily weighted toward broader impacts? How much of the proposal narrative should be devoted to broader impacts?

A: All NSF proposals are evaluated with the merit review criteria of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts, and successful proposals need to be strong in both domains. Projects from PUIs have exceptional opportunities to generate broader impacts, particularly through student training and broadening participation. How a proposal (and a PI team and their institutional context) realize those merits may look very different. However, if your proposal carries the “RUI” designation, you have five pages for the RUI impact statement that allow you to explain the larger context of research and training and their integration.

Q: I’m a new sponsored research administrator at a PUI. Do you have advice on how I might be able to help faculty identify the right subprogram for their research projects?

A: There are a number of strategies that you might try, either before meeting with faculty or in concert with them. There are some opportunities that are focused on specific career stages (CAREER, MCA, OPUS), and these are available for proposals on any research topic with a large domain. Making faculty broadly aware of those programs is a good start. Because biological research doesn’t often fit into a single discipline, it may be hard to scout topically focused funding opportunities for faculty because different ideas may fit in different programs. Thus, developing a one-page synopsis of their research ideas might help them (and you) search for topically appropriate opportunities. Such one-page synopses can also be shared with NSF program directors who can also suggest appropriate programmatic fit. Searching for current and past awards on the NSF award search webpage that are similar in topic and scope can also help faculty identify opportunities. 

Q: You can only ask for two months or less per year of personnel support for PIs. Any programs used for sabbatical supplement or support longer than two months?

A: Mid-career advancement can provide multiple months of support for a sabbatical-like experience. BRC-BIO can also provide more academic year support. Opportunities for Promoting Understanding through Synthesis (OPUS) is another option for longer-term support.

Q: Could you share the official NSF definition of Primarily Undergraduate Institutions?

A: Eligible PUIs are accredited colleges and universities (including two-year community colleges) that award Associate’s degrees, Bachelor’s degrees, and/or Master’s degrees in NSF-supported fields but have awarded 20 or fewer Ph.D./D.Sci. degrees in all NSF-supported fields during the combined previous two academic years.

Additional questions can be found here on our recap post when we previously discussed Research at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions.   

Please reach out to a Program Officer if you have any questions about the proposal submission and review process in DEB programs. NSF has suggested 5 tips on working with Program Officers as part of the NSF 101 series on our Science Matters blog.

Check out the upcoming office hour topics below and be sure to check back here or on the NSF Events Page for information on how to register. Our next virtual office hours will be held May 9, 2022, from 1-2pm Eastern Time and will be on the CAREER solicitation (NSF 20-525).

Upcoming Office Hours and Topics:

May 9: CAREER Solicitation                   

June 13: You’ve Been Awarded an NSF Grant, Now What?                   

July: No Virtual Office Hour

August 8: International Collaboration

September 12: Postdoc Research Fellowship

October 17*: How to Write a Great Proposal

November 14: Opportunities for Research in Climate Change

December 12: Upcoming Solicitations

*date change due to Federal Holiday

When Should I Submit My Proposal?

Since DEB has moved to a no deadline model for our core solicitations, you may ask yourself, “When is the optimal time to submit my proposal?” Your question is a very common one.

There is no best time to submit a proposal to us because we have panels regularly spaced throughout the year and their exact timing is generally not locked into place until we know we have enough proposals to fill them. Regardless of when a proposal is submitted, funding decisions are generally made within six months of submission.

So, our advice is simple: Submit when you feel your proposal is ready for review.

Contacting a Program Officer

Your questions and ideas matter, and NSF Program Officers (POs) are here to help. The PO’s role, while primarily a scientific one, also includes being a liaison, translator, customer service representative, coach, advisor, and interpreter for all things NSF. Yes, POs are representing the agency, but they are also scientists—some very recently in academia—and they know what it’s like to be in your shoes.

For those of you who are hesitant, here’s a short guide on why and how to contact a PO.

Why should I contact an NSF Program Officer?

It’s easiest to answer that question with more questions.

  • Is it about a RAPID, RAISE, EAGER, ROA, RCN, or workshop? For these types of proposals, communicating with a PO will give you a better sense of what NSF is looking for. For some of these types of proposals, written permission from a PO is required to submit, so this communication is essential.
  • Did a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) explicitly tell you to? Look for the contact information in the letter and email that PO.  Please don’t send separate emails to each PO listed in the DCL. Pick one and copy the others.
  • Are you curious about which DEB cluster or program is most appropriate for your proposal? If you’re not sure, don’t waste your time guessing! A PO can help you determine where it belongs in the Division or beyond.
  • Are you curious why a proposal didn’t get funded? POs can help you unpack and explain a decision and then discuss how to move forward.

How do I contact an NSF Program Officer?

The best way to start a conversation is to email a PO and set up a time to talk on the phone, or via Zoom. (It’s best not to cold call.) In your email, include a paragraph or short summary of what you want to discuss. If you want to discuss a project you already submitted or have questions about the reviews you received, include the project ID number so the PO can prepare in advance. In-person meetings with POs are generally quite difficult to arrange due to time constraints and physical security of the NSF building.

How do I know which DEB Program Officer to email?

All DEB POs will be able to answer your general question(s). However, if you’re interested in exploring a specific field of research, it’s best to pick a PO whose own research background is most closely aligned with your research question. Start by reading the cluster descriptions for each of the core programs and do a quick Google search to see who best matches your interests. Please do not email all the POs in a cluster, or multiple POs across the Division. Please pick one PO and wait for them to get back to you. They will help point you to the right person if they cannot help.  And please check your spam folder.

If you want to discuss a proposal you submitted, you should contact the PO who is listed on Research.gov as managing that proposal. They will know about your proposal and understand what happened to it.

Is it OK to reach out again if I’m confused or think of more questions?

Absolutely! If something wasn’t clear, reach out again through email to set up another time to talk. It is not uncommon.

If my proposal is funded, should I stay in contact with a Program Officer?

Yes! In addition to alerting your PO about any issues and submitting your required reports, let your managing PO know about any paper submissions, acceptances, or novel broader impact outcomes. POs want to hear about your successes and can share with others at NSF who may help promote them.

When should I NOT contact an NSF Program Officer?

Before you fire off that email or pick up the phone after having a proposal declined, please give yourself some time (at least a week or two) to digest and reflect on the reviews – then contact a PO with questions. Talk to you soon!

Upcoming Virtual Office Hours: Research at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions 

Join us Monday, April 11th, 1 – 2pm ET for DEB’s next Virtual Office Hour focused on Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUI). We will discuss the challenges and opportunities that faculty at PUIs experience while navigating the unique NSF funding landscape. Representatives from each cluster in DEB will be present. Upcoming DEB Virtual Office Hours are announced ahead of time on DEBrief, so we suggest you also sign up for blog notifications.   



If you can’t make it to this or any future office hours, don’t worry! Come back to the blog afterwards, as we post recaps and the presentation slides of all office hour sessions. Alternatively, visit our Office Hours homepage for slideshows and recaps of past topics. Virtual Office Hours are on the second Monday of every month from 1 – 2pm ET. Below is a list of upcoming dates and topics (subject to change). Be sure to add them to your calendars and register ahead of time.       

Upcoming Office Hour Topics: 

  • May 9: CAREER Solicitation                    
  • June 13: You’ve Been Awarded an NSF Grant, Now What?                    
  • July: No Virtual Office Hour 
  • August 8: International Collaboration 
  • September 12: Postdoc Research Fellowship 
  • October 17: How to Write a Great Proposal 
  • November 14: Opportunities for Research in Climate Change 
  • December 12: Upcoming Solicitations

Vacancy: Science Education Administrator in the Division of Human Resource Development 

Our friends over in the Division of Human Resource Development (part of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR)) are looking to hire a Temporary/Rotator Science Education Administrator (Program Director) for several of their programs. These programs include:

  • ADVANCE: Organizational Change for Gender Equity in STEM Academic Professions (ADVANCE)
  • Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP)
  • Centers for Research in Science and Technology (CREST) Program
  • Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program (HBCU-UP)
  • Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) Program
  • Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Program

More information can be found here.