New Required Format for Collaborators & Other Affiliations


Are you planning to submit a proposal to NSF? As of April 24, 2017, there is a new required template for the submission of the Collaborators & Other Affiliations (COA) information.  This is the information that must be submitted by each PI, co-PI, or Other Senior Personnel identified on a proposal (i.e., anyone who has a biosketch in the proposal) that helps NSF to avoid conflicts when requesting reviews from the community.  Don’t confuse this spreadsheet template with the Personnel List Spreadsheet template required by the DEB solicitation: http://www.nsf.gov/bio/deb/debpersonnellist.xlsx. They are two different things.  There should only be one Personnel List Spreadsheet that lists all of the people associated with an entire project emailed to DEB as instructed in the solicitation, whereas each person associated with a project must have their Collaborators & Other Affiliations (COA) information submitted as a Single Copy Document using this new template.

This new standardized format will ensure that the information is complete, and most importantly, searchable by NSF Program Officers. It includes a section for the person’s name and affiliation(s), PhD Advisors/Advisees, Collaborators, Co-Editors, and other Relationships, with detailed descriptions of who should be included in each section as described in the NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures guide.

Most important things to remember:

  1. Each person listed on a proposal as PI, co-PI, or Other Senior Personnel must submit the document along with their Biosketch and their Current and Pending Support Statement.
  2. After filling out the template, the document must be saved as .xlsx or .xls format, and uploaded to FastLane as a Collaborators & Other Affiliations Single Copy Document
  3. The template and more information about this new process can be found online here: https://www.nsf.gov/bfa/dias/policy/coa.jsp

So why not get ahead of the crowd and make sure that you and all of your collaborators have an updated Collaborators & Other Affiliations template filled out and ready to go? This is not something you want to be pulling together from all of your collaborators the day before you are trying to submit a proposal. And why not share this new NSF process with your Sponsored Research Office, as well?

 

What Makes for a Competitive DEB CAREER Proposal?


CAREER (Faculty Early Career Development Program) is an NSF-wide award for early career (pre-tenure) faculty. It is one of the most prestigious and sought after grants made by the National Science Foundation. CAREERs support pre-tenure faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars. CAREER proposals should have a well-thought-out plan for the integration of teaching/training and research. This integration is key to a successful proposal. The work you propose in a CAREER submission should build a firm foundation for a long “career” involving your planned research and education programs.

In DEB, CAREER proposals are reviewed alongside other full proposals submitted to the same program (e.g., Population & Community Ecology, Evolutionary Processes). As you can see from the figure below success rates are between 6-18%. (Compare that to overall rate for full proposals in DEB https://debblog.nsfbio.com/2017/01/06/deb-numbers-fy-2016-wrap-up).

CAREER

You are eligible to apply for a CAREER if you are an Assistant Professor (or in an equivalent tenure-track position). You do not need to be at a Research I University to apply; you can apply from any NSF-eligible institution (e.g., primarily undergraduate institution, 2-year college, independent museum or research lab). You will need a letter of support from your department chair affirming your eligibility and demonstrating how the proposed work advances the research and educational goals of your department. It should also explain how the department is committed to mentoring and supporting you as a teacher and scholar through your professional development. Please refer to the CAREER award solicitation for more details.

Because integration of teaching and research is the heart-and-soul of a CAREER proposal, the required education plan should be tightly integrated with research described in the Intellectual Merit section; placing it solely in the Broader Impacts section is typically a mistake. The plan should not be a rehashing of your current duties as an Assistant Professor (e.g., teaching your current graduate or undergraduate level courses). The more inseparable from your research, the better.  The education plan can include formal and informal teaching (e.g., webinars, public talks, workshops) and can take place in non-academic settings and focus on traditionally underserved communities. It is good to keep in mind the current infrastructural capabilities and resources of your home institution (e.g., does it have a program for underrepresented groups that you can use for recruitment in your education program? Does it have a mechanism for engaging with the general public?). The education component could be directed at any level of student from kindergarten to graduate students, or include training and education of the general public.  The important thing is that your education plan is consistent and integrated with your research career goals.  The very best CAREER proposals are those in which the research informs teaching and the teaching informs the research. In other words, strive for research and education plans that are synergistic, not “just” integrated.

Because CAREER awards are intended to set the trajectory of your career, it is fine to include plans for learning new techniques (research or teaching). Reviewers and Program Officers take the long view; they understand the need for early-career scientists to fill gaps or strengthen bridges before pushing ahead on a particular theme. In such circumstances, it’s important to be up-front, to provide justification or explanation, and to budget accordingly.

A successful CAREER award should result in more than an incremental increase in our knowledge of a subject area, and should have a broad (but feasible) focus. Furthermore, a CAREER proposal should place your research in the context of a program of career development that includes the interactions between education and research and/or outreach. The proposal should demonstrate your expertise and ability to perform the proposed work. Please keep in mind that you cannot have Co-PIs in a CAREER proposal. CAREER proposals are about your work, but if critical for a given project, collaborators are now allowed in the form of senior personnel. Collaborators should provide some essential, specialized (yet limited) component of the project, or mentoring that contributes to your professional development. (If you do include senior personnel in your proposal, they must submit a Biosketch, Current & Pending Grants, and their ‘Collaborators and Other Affiliations.’) You can also have your collaborators write a “Letter of Collaboration.” These are not letters of recommendation – please follow the NSF provided template in the CAREER solicitation.

You have three opportunities to apply for a CAREER award (and only one opportunity per year). You cannot apply if you will be tenured (i.e., no longer an Assistant Professor) before October 1st following the proposal deadline of July 19, 2017. In BIO, the proposal budget (including indirect costs) should exceed $500,000 for a 5-year duration. (Fun fact: This is the only type of proposal in DEB with a budgetary floor, not a ceiling.) For more about CAREER awards please read the NSF program solicitation and contact a Program Officer in the most relevant cluster, if you have questions.

 

DDIGs Come to a Close


The Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG) program in the Division of Environmental Biology has come to an end. This decision was difficult, but the NSF and BIO’s programs  are facing many challenges and this is the best course of action at this time.

The first DDIG solicitation was issued nearly 50 years ago and was intended to provide supplemental funds for graduate students doing field work (a largely unfunded area at the time especially when it came to field work off campus). As the needs of graduate students evolved, DDIGs expanded to help cover additional costs such as dissemination of results and expanded research expenditures.

The funds were intended to widen the existing body of dissertation research and act as a capstone to enhance the students’ work. Over time, DDIGs became a prestigious addition to any CV, with many more students submitting proposals. Eventually, the number of DDIG awards mirrored the number of full proposal awards.

DDIG

 *Proposals from core programs only

 

In the table above, you’ll see the number of DDIG proposals reviewed in the past two years compared to the number of full research proposals reviewed. In the recent past, full proposal awards and DDIG awards are similar in number.  What those DDIG numbers also represent are four review panels comprised of nearly eighty panelists whose recruitment, travel, and reimbursement were coordinated by NSF staff.  The cost and effort of staging a DDIG panel and processing the decisions are virtually identical to the cost and effort of a standard grant panel. Yes, DDIGs are small budget awards; they are generally less than $20,000, but DDIGs still demand all the same oversight, management, and approval processes as standard grants.

Many of our Program Officers were themselves recipients of DDIG awards and looked forward to reading the innovative and high-risk research ideas being generated by fearless students. DDIGs have catalyzed a culture of independence and risk taking among graduate students within the sciences funded by DEB; we sincerely hope that graduate training programs will strive to find ways to sustain that culture.

The decision by DEB (and IOS) to end the DDIG solicitation was difficult but in the face of high workload it was a necessary course of action. The NSF will continue supporting graduate research through the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) and the NSF Research Traineeship Program (NRT). If you have any additional questions after reading the Dear Colleague Letter and FAQ, please feel free to reach out to us at debquestions@nsf.gov.

 

 

 

 

Remember: Include a List of Eligible Reviewers


As a Principal Investigator, do you ever wish you could help NSF get informative and insightful ad hoc reviews of your proposals? One way to do this is to take advantage of the “single copy document” option and include a list of eligible reviewers who are the relevant experts in your field when you submit a full proposal.

Think of the process as being similar to contributing to the list of letter writers for a tenure review. Would you ignore a request to provide a list of potential reviewers and leave that solely up to the committee chair? Not likely.  Yet during the last full proposal cycle in DEB, only half of the submitted proposals included a list of suggested reviewers.  As the Principal Investigator, you are an invaluable resource for NSF for identifying appropriate reviewers.

When you provide a list of suggested expert reviewers along with their contact information, you are increasing the probability of obtaining a knowledgeable review by expanding the universe of potential reviewers beyond those immediately known to Program Officers.

For your next full proposal, please consider including a list of eight or more eligible suggested reviewers. Be sure that none of them have conflicts of interest with your proposal (e.g., spouse or relative, collaborators and co-editors, thesis advisor, institutional conflicts). Think about including newer faculty members and experienced post-doctoral scholars who have a deep and current understanding of the topic; Program Directors probably know the “household names” in the field, but may not be aware of those individuals.  And don’t put this task off to the end of proposal preparation when you may be pushing to meet the submission deadline. Think of suggesting reviewers as part of the process of preparing the best proposal you can.  If you take advantage of this opportunity to help yourself you will also assist NSF Program Directors in their role of providing the highest quality merit review of your proposal.  If you have any additional questions about submitting suggested reviewers please feel free to contact us at debquestions@nsf.gov.

DEB & IOS Preliminary Proposal System Evaluation Update


Our independent evaluation contractor, Abt, closed the PI and Reviewer surveys in mid-November.

At present, they are working on analyzing the survey results. These results will be brought together with analyses of stakeholder interviews and programmatic (proposal, award, and review process) data that Abt has already completed to produce a full evaluation.

We are expecting the final report to be delivered to NSF by the end of February, 2017. We are looking forward to sharing the results with you as we are able.

And, to the many of you who were contacted by Abt to take part in the survey, thank you for your time and participation.

Your project titles matter, choose wisely


This post was inspired by a bit of musing as to what would happen if PIs tried to crowd-source parts of their proposals. The obvious answer, to us at least, was that we would almost certainly, and immediately, receive a proposal titled “Granty McGrantface.” We’re presuming you are familiar with the reference; but if not, see these links. While the saga of our friends at NERC turned our pretty well, it reminded us of two things: 1) asking the internet to decide for you is a risky proposition, and (the focus of this post) 2) that no matter our intentions, some of the stuff[i] we do, or that stems from the funding we provide to you, will get noticed by a wide audience. Most stuff tends to go unnoticed, but from time to time something goes viral.

Therefore: What you choose to call your project matters.

Why the project title matters to NSF

The project title is the most meaningful and unique piece of your proposal that carries over to the public award description. Everything else in your proposal is distilled and condensed down to a couple paragraphs of “public abstract” and a few dozen metadata records available via the NSF award search and research.gov[ii]. Consider, too, the project title is a part of your proposal for which NSF takes responsibility and exercises editorial power. We can, and sometimes do, change project titles (about a quarter are changed, mostly for clarity – such as writing out abbreviations.)

Why the project title matters to you

The project title and PI info are the only things most potential reviewers will ever see before deciding whether to review your proposal. The title is your first (and typically only) shot to communicate to a reviewer that your proposal is interesting and worth their time to review[iii].  And as we said above, if your proposal gets funded, the title gets posted on the NSF public awards website along with the PI name and institution.

 

You can (and should) provide effective project titles

When you receive an award, the title will be searchable by anyone and permanently associated with your name. Over the years, we’ve seen a vast array of proposal titles. We’ve also seen how they affect the audiences (reviewers, panels, and public) who read or hear them. Based on the accumulation of observations and experiences in DEB, we’ve put together these 8 tips to consider when composing your project titles.

Keep in mind: The following are not any sort of universally enforced rules or NSF policy. The proposal title is initially your responsibility, but as we said, once it comes into NSF, we can edit it as needed. Ultimately, what makes a good title is subjective and is probably not constant across disciplines or over time. These are just some broad and general tips we hope you’ll find helpful.

Tip 1: Know your broader audiences

Reviewers, including panelists, are specialists, but not necessarily from the same sub-sub-specialty as you. Public readers of award titles cover an even wider range of knowledge and expertise. These are the people who are going to read that title and make a decision whether to take action. Reviewers will, first, decide whether or not to read, and then, whether or not to support your proposal. The public will decide whether to read your award abstract, and the media will decide whether to contact you.

There are both good and bad potential outcomes of public attention. It can seem like a strong, scientifically precise, and erudite proposal title might inform and impress readers. But that misses half the point: it’s not simply about avoiding misunderstanding. Instead, a good title is a vehicle for audience engagement; it seeks to cultivate positive responses. This happens when you use straight-forward, plain language, minimizing jargon and tech-speak, with a clear message. The rest of these tips are basically more specific examples of ways to do this.

Tip 2: Write to your (proposal’s) strengths

Most of us feel some twinge of annoyance when we see a misleading headline or publication title, e.g. “Transformative Biology Research to Cure All Diseases.” This is your chance to get it right! Don’t bury the lede. Focus your title on the core idea of the proposal. In many cases, details like the organism, the location, or the specific method are secondary[iv]; if you include them, do so carefully, in supporting roles and not swamping the central conceptual component[v]. If you wrote your title before your proposal, it’s a good idea to come back around to it before hitting submit.

Tip 3: Using Buzzwords #OnFleek

It’s a bit cliché to say this, but it bears mention: don’t tell us your project is great, demonstrate it. That is what the project description is for. We like “transformative” and “interdisciplinary” projects, but placing those words in your title doesn’t imbue your project with those qualities. Similarly, loading up on topical or methodological buzzwords (“*omics”, “CRISPR”, etc.) adds little when the major consideration is the knowledge you’re seeking to uncover, not the shiny new tool you want to wield or the loose connection to a hot topic. The space you save by dropping this extra verbiage can allow you to address other important aspects of your project.

Tip 4: Acronyms

They save space in your title. And, NSF seems to have them all over the place (It’s an ARE: Acronym Rich Environment). So, why not use them, right? Well…, tread carefully.

The various title prefixes (e.g. RUI, CAREER) we ask for are used by us to 1) ensure reviewers see that special review criteria apply and 2) check that we’ve applied the right processing to your proposal. They’re often acronyms because we don’t want to waste your character count. So, we want those on your proposals[vi] but, after merit review, we may remove them before making an award. Other acronyms added by you tend to fall into two categories:

  • Compressed jargon- for example, “NGS” for Next Generation Sequencing. When you don’t have the whole proposal immediately behind it, an acronym in your title may never actually be defined in the public description and it may imply something unintended to some in the audience.
  • Project-name shorthand- There are perhaps a handful of projects that through longevity and productivity have attained a degree of visibility and distinctiveness that allows them to be known by an acronym or other shorthand within the particular research community. Even if your project has achieved this distinction, remember that your audience goes beyond your community: not everyone will know of it. Further, trying to create a catchy nickname for a project (or program) usually doesn’t add anything to your proposal and can lead to some real groan-inducing stretches of language.

Tip 5: Questions to consider

How will reviewers respond to a title phrased as a question? Is the answer already an obvious yes or no? If so, why do you need the proposal and more money? Is this question even answerable with your proposed work? Is this one of the very rare projects that can be effectively encapsulated in this way?

Tip 6: Attempted humor

This can work; it may also fall flat (see above entry on “Questions”). It can, to some audiences, make your project seem unprofessional and illegitimate. That is a sizeable risk. It used to be, and still is to some extent, a fairly common practice to have a joke or cartoon in your slide deck to “lighten the mood” and “connect with your audience”. If you’ve ever seen a poor presenter do this, you know it’s not a universally good thing. With a proposal title, it’s always there and doesn’t get buried under the rest of the material as might happen with a slide. The alternative is to skip the joke and write something that connects to your reader through personality and creativity instead. This can be hard to do, but practice helps. For example, “I Ain’t Afraid of No Host: The Saga of a Generalist Parasite” was a funny, at least to us, title we made up – but will everyone reading it think it is funny, and does it help the grant that the title is funny? It isn’t very informative – again, tread lightly.

Tip 7: Latin vs Common terms

Per tip 2, you may not always list an organism in your project title; but when you do, make it accessible. The Latin name alone places a burden of prior knowledge or extra work on readers. It is a courtesy to public readers (not to mention your own SRO who may be filling out paperwork about your proposal and also to panelists who may be far afield from your system and unfamiliar with your organism) to add a common name label too. But, be careful. Some common names are too specific, jargon-y, or even misleading for a general audience. You don’t want, for instance, someone to see “mouse-ear cress” for Arabidopsis thaliana and think you’re working on vertebrate animal auditory systems (this has happened![vii]).

Tip 8: Thoughtful Word Choice

This tip expands the idea of confusing language, which we already pointed out regarding Latin names and acronyms, to avoiding jargon in general. Some jargon is problematic just because it is dense; as with Latin names and acronyms, this sort of jargon can be addressed by addition of or replacement with common terms. Other jargon is problematic because the audience understands it, but differently than intended. Meg Duffy over at Dynamic Ecology had a post on this some time back in the context of teaching and communication. These issues arise in proposals too. There are some very core words in our fields that don’t necessarily evoke the same meaning to a general audience or even across fields. The most straightforward example we can point to is our own name: the “E” in DEB stands for “environmental.” To a general audience environmental is more evocative of “environmentalism,” “conservation,” recycling programs, and specific policy goals than it is of any form of basic research[viii]. Addressing this sort of jargon in a proposal title is a bit harder because the word already seems common, and concise alternative phrasings are hard to come by.

For jargon, it might benefit you to try bouncing your title off of a neighbor, an undergrad outside your department, or an administrator colleague. In some cases, you might find a better, clearer approach. In others, maybe there’s not a better wording, but at least you are more aware of the potential misunderstandings.

Final Thoughts

Most of the project titles that we see won’t lead to awards and will never be published; and even if an award is made, most of their titles attract little notice. A few, however, will be seen by thousands or be picked up by the media and broadcast to millions. Thus, the title seems like a small and inconsequential thing, until it’s suddenly important. Because of this, even though the project title is a small piece of your proposal, it is worthy of attention and investment. We have provided the tips above to help you craft a title that uses straight-forward, plain language, to convey a clear and engaging message to your audiences.

We can’t avoid attention. In fact, we want to draw positive attention to the awesome work you do. But audience reactions are reliably unpredictable. The best we can do is to make sure that what we’re putting out there is as clear and understandable as possible.

 


[i] Anything related to research funding from policies on our end to research papers to tweets or videos mentioning projects.

[ii] At the close of an award, you are also required to file a “Project Outcomes Report” via Research.gov. This also becomes part of the permanent project record and publicly visible when your work is complete. We don’t edit these.

[iii] For the “good titles” argument as applied to research papers, see here: https://smallpondscience.com/2016/10/19/towards-better-titles-for-academic-papers-an-evaluative-approach-from-a-blogging-perspective/

[iv] There are obvious exceptions here, like a proposal for a targeted biodiversity survey in a geographical region.

[v] For what it’s worth, this is a common “rookie mistake” even before writing a proposal. We get lots of inquiries along the lines of “do you fund studies on organism X” or “in place Y”. The short answer is yes, but it’s often irrelevant because that doesn’t differentiate DEB from MCB or IOS or BioOCE. We don’t define the Division of Environmental Biology by organisms, or places, or tools, or methods. We define it by the nature of the fundamental questions being addressed by the research.

[vi] Some prefixes are mutually exclusive of one another. For example, CAREER and RUI cannot both be applied to the same proposal (http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2015/nsf15057/nsf15057.jsp#a16).

[vii] Better alternatives might have been “plant”, “wild mustard”,

[viii] And yes, we do get the same sorts of calls and emails about “sick trees”, “that strange bird I saw”, “what to do about spiders,” etc. as you do.

Fall 2016 DEB Panels status: “When will I have a decision?” edition


DEB’s full proposal panels finished in early November (for those full proposals submitted back in July and August). So, when will you receive review results?

Some of you may have already heard from us. Others will be hearing “soon” (as detailed below).

Right now, all of our programs have synthesized the recommendations of their panels, considered their portfolios, and come up with their planned award and decline recommendations. These are then documented, sent through administrative review, and finally signed off, “concurred,” by the head or deputy for the Division.

DEB’s first priority is processing the decline notices. We’re trying to get your reviews back to you to provide as much time as possible to consider your options for January pre-proposal submissions.

For potential awards, it’s a bit more complicated. We expect award recommendation dates to be later this year than typical. At present, NSF is operating under a temporary budget measure, called a Continuing Resolution (or CR). The current CR runs through December 9, 2016. We won’t have significant funds available to cover new grants until a longer-term funding measure is enacted.

So, while we have a prioritized list of award recommendations, we don’t yet have the funds needed to take action on those recommendations. Moreover, we don’t know how much funding we’ll actually have available so uncertainty is part of the plan. Thus, between “definite award recommendation” and “definite decline recommendation” we have a recommendation gray zone.

How are we handling this?

If your proposal fell into the definite decline group, then you’ll be getting an official notice from DEB. Once the formal decline recommendation is approved, the system updates the proposal status in FastLane and queues up a notification email. We are planning to have all declines approved by December 20, 2016. Note: our IT system sends the notification emails in batches at the end of the day[i]. Thus, if you are frequently refreshing FastLane you will likely see the news there before you get a letter from us.

If your proposal fell into the definite award group or the gray zone, you will first be getting a call or email from your Program Officer. They will be letting you know what the plan is for your particular proposal and how you can get things ready (e.g., submitting budget revisions or abstract language) for an eventual award. Formal action, including the release of reviews, cannot happen until we have funding available. However, folks in this group should also hear from their Program Officers by December 20.

After December 20, if you have not received any communication from us, first check your spam folder and then look up your proposal number and give us a call. But please remember, the lead PI for a proposal or collaborative group is the designated point of contact; if you’re a co-PI you need to get in touch with the lead PI and have them inquire.


[i] We’re not totally sure why this is, but suspect it has to do with email traffic volume and security features: discriminating an intentional batch of emails from an account taken over by a bot.