NEON Webinar


From our friends over at the DBI blog,

“The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently announced its intention to carry out a competition to manage the Operations and Maintenance of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). The Dear Colleague Letter (NSF 19-080) announcing this decision:

  • provides general information on NEON,
  • communicates that NSF anticipates initiating the competition,
  • provides information on provisional goals,
  • outlines a timeline for the competition, and
  • invites comments and questions from eligible organizations interested in this competition (submit via neon-bot@nsf.gov).

NSF will be hosting a webinar on September 11th at 2pm regarding the planned competition for operation and management of NEON. Individuals, teams, and organizations interested in submitting proposals should try to participate.

This webinar will discuss the timeline for executing the competition for the management of NEON Operations and Maintenance. It will highlight key decision points by NSF and identify critical dates for activities related to the competition. The webinar will also provide information on the post-award oversight requirements for awards managed through cooperative agreements (CAs). Following the presentation, there will be a question and answer period.

For further details about the competition, please consult the NEON Program webpage and DCL (NSF 19-080).

For more details about NEON, please consult the NEON Project webpage.”

Meet DEB: Chris Balakrishnan


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We didn’t hire the bird, we hired the person holding the bird. Photo Credit: Rhett Butler (different Rhett Butler)

What’s your name and role here at DEB?

My name is Chris Balakrishnan and I am a rotating Program Officer with the Evolutionary Processes Cluster.

Where did you go to school?

I received my undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Pennsylvania and my Ph.D. in biology from Boston University.

Where is your home institution?

East Carolina University.

Tell us about your research.

I’ll admit to being a bit of a dabbler. The main themes in my research are birds & their DNA (and RNA). Beyond that I’m interested in fundamental aspects of how genomes evolve and how species form, but also more mechanistic questions about how the brain and immune system function in ecological and evolutionary contexts. I primarily study birds as they offer wonderful opportunities to study the evolution of complex social behaviors. I’m particularly interested in those species that display unusual (wacky) behaviors. These avian oddities provide an opportunity to understand evolutionary changes in behavior. As an example, some of my work focuses on brood parasitic birds. Unlike most birds, brood parasitic birds don’t provide any parental care to their young. Instead, they lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species. Brood parasitism has evolved seven times independently in birds and I’m interested in how and why this happened. The hope is that these studies will inform our understanding of the causes of variation in parental care behavior and the processes that lead to major behavioral innovations.

Why do you want to serve with NSF?

Prior to interviewing for my position here, I hadn’t really thought much about serving as a Program Officer. What had struck me though was that colleagues that had spent time here were uniform in that they truly loved the experience. Upon interviewing I really began to see why they enjoyed NSF so much and my interview convinced me that this was going to be a wonderful experience. I expect that being part of the proposal review process will be highly rewarding, and I really look forward to interacting with a large group of colleagues.  I’m excited to work with the dynamic and diverse group of people here and to gain this new experience. Selfishly, I know that exposure to all of the exciting work being done at NSF will help my research career as well. I’m also looking to complete a lifetime sweep of living in all of the major northeastern cities. In addition to New York, Philadelphia & Boston, I’m happy to add DC to the list (technically, I live in Alexandria though so maybe it doesn’t count). Baltimore, you are next!

What are you looking forward to in your tenure here at NSF?

First and foremost, I’m really looking forward to the stimulating discussions that surround the proposal review process. Additionally, however, it seems like I’m entering NSF in the midst of a lot of interesting changes aimed at enhancing integration among subdisciplines in biology. I’m truly looking forward to seeing how these and other new programs develop.

 

Writing Budget Justifications


A budget justification is the narrative that accompanies your budget and can be up to 5 pages in length. This is where investigators validate and explain the dollar amounts they requested in their line-item budget. Justifications explain pay rates and outline equipment, materials, and supplies requests. Investigators should ask themselves if their budget justifications are answering these questions;

  1. Why are these requested funds needed?
  2. How does each item in the budget help meet the proposed deliverables?
  3. How were these requested funds estimated?

The first place to start before writing any budget justification is the PAPPG. In addition to all the picky details provided there, here are three general pieces of advice that typify budgets that meet little resistance when it comes time to fund your project. The best budget justifications tend to have these things in common:

Use of Parallel Formatting with the Budget Pages

The absolute best way to organize and format your budget justification is to use the same letter and number system used in the budget template. This also helps your Program Officer locate specific items and amounts.

Using Senior Personnel as an example, your budget template will look something like this;

budget just.png

Then your budget justification for this exciting, cross-disciplinary proposal should follow this order;

A. Senior Personnel

 

  1. Pomona Sprout- Principal Investigator, # months’ work/year, list specific responsibilities and explain how she arrived at this calculation.Year 1 $$$$, Year 2 $$$$, Year 3 $$$$, Year 4 $$$$
  2. Indiana Jones- Co-Principal Investigator, # months’ work/year, list specific responsibilities and explain how he arrived at this calculation.Year 1 $$$$, Year 2 $$$$, Year 3 $$$$, Year 4 $$$$

Salaries: Time and Rates

For all personnel, show what amounts you are asking for and state how you calculated those salary amounts. Give a monthly breakdown and include any fringe rates.

If you are requesting more than two months’ salary for any senior personnel, clearly justify that the rationale fits into one of these two categories:

  1. the person has a soft money position, or
  2. the project scope requires buying out of teaching time.

Section G. Other Direct Costs

Section G is often where confusion happens. The best way to avoid confusion is to start in the PAPPG. It clearly defines which costs should live in lines G1-G6. Some key points to keep in mind are;

  • Do not include funds for Materials and Supplies under Participant Support Costs (section F), even if those items will be used by students or other trainees. List them under G.1.
  • Section G.3 (Consultant Services): If you are using the consultant category, Program Officers may request additional information as to each individual’s expertise, primary organizational affiliation, normal daily compensation rate, and number of days of expected service.
  • Section G.5 (Subawards): For each subaward, a budget and budget narrative need to be prepared and submitted. Please make sure that the subaward budgets list the subawardee institution and PI (and not the information of the lead proposal again).
  • Section G.6 (Other Direct Costs – Other) is a catch-all category that will always attract scrutiny, so especially for this section be sure to be explicit about what you’re requesting, why, and how much it will cost. Also,
  • Graduate student tuition goes in G.6. Other.

In Conclusion

Justify everything. Assume nothing. If necessary, clarify the NSF budget guidelines with your Authorized Organizational Representative prior to submitting a proposal. This is especially important for rare or unusual expenditures, such as foreign subawards or consultancies or salary requests beyond two months for any senior personnel. It’s also important for normal expenditures like travel.

For example, don’t just write, “I need $8000 for international travel to go to two meetings in Europe.” PIs should use an airfare estimator and show the breakdown of costs.

Again, make sure your Program Officer understands how you came up with the total number you’re requesting in each category. There’s no harm in adding a table to show calculations. And this may seem obvious, but make sure the numbers in the budget justification match the numbers in the budget.

Finally, if most of your work is off-campus, check with your Authorized Organizational Representative about whether the off-campus indirect cost rate applies. Different institutions have different policies on when the off-campus rate is appropriate.

For additional tips on preparing an award budget, visit our friends over at the MCB blog.

Undergraduate and Graduate Opportunities at NSF


How’s your summer going? Too early to start thinking about next summer? What about winter or spring break? We don’t think so! Be sure and share these opportunities with your undergraduates, graduate students, and recent graduates.

Summer Scholars: undergraduate and graduate internships at NSF

NSF hosts about 20 Summer Scholars for 10 weeks during the summer. NSF Program Officers serve as mentors and create a work plan for the student. That work plan is submitted to the NSF Summer Scholars Program for approval and then those internships are advertised through 3 organizations; the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), the Quality Education for Minorities Network (QEM), and the Washington Internships for Native Students (WINS). Students need to apply through one of those three associations, not to NSF.

This internship program is designed to serve under-represented students. The purpose is to give students the opportunity to see what it’s like to serve within the Federal sector as well as encourage students to pursue advanced studies in STEM.

As for compensation, summer scholarships can include housing and stipends for undergraduate and graduate students.

REU Sites: research experiences for undergraduates

If students would rather do research at a University lab than work at a Federal agency, they can apply to an REU Site. REU Sites receive funding from NSF to engage undergraduate students in research. Like the Summer Scholar Program, students don’t apply through NSF but have to contact an REU Site directly and apply with that particular site. A list of REU Sites can be found here.

REU Supplements: research experiences for undergraduates

Investigators currently receiving funding from NSF for awards can apply for REU Supplements. Supplements are designed to give undergraduates a genuine research experience similar to REU Site experiences but instead of being offered through an institution, supplements are managed by NSF-funded investigators. Students must seek out those supplement opportunities through active awards, reaching out to labs and inquiring if they have applied (or are planning to apply) for supplements, or paying attention to their local college or university job board.

Stipends for REU students vary depending on location and project but they generally range between $6,000-8,000 and last between 6-10 weeks.

Special Programs for Undergraduates

Here’s a collection of special programs that provide either direct (i.e., from NSF) or indirect (i.e., from an awardee institution) funding for students interested in training and curricula development. They vary in application processes, stipends, and objectives so read them carefully and don’t hesitate to reach out to the program contacts listed on the program webpages.

Pathways: internships and fellowships at Federal agencies

Maybe Federal service is where your heart is, after all. If that’s the case, you’ll need to apply through the USAJobs portal. Of course, you can apply for any federal government job that you qualify for, but there are specific programs that help students and recent graduates get their foot in the door.

  1. There’s the Pathways Internship Program for current students.
  2. The Recent Graduates Program for, you guessed it, recent graduates.
  3. And the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) Program for those with an advanced degree (Masters or PhD).

Pathways interns and PMFs earn an annual salary that varies by agency and location. Some Federal agencies may also offer internships outside of the Pathways Program but those are generally unpaid.

 

Reintegrating Biology Town Halls


Learn about this exciting new initiative and register for town hall discussions from the Office of the Assistant Director’s blog here or below.

“Biology has the goal of understanding the processes that generate and sustain life.  Despite this unifying principle, the actual practice of modern biology has become increasingly fragmented into subdisciplines due, in part, to specialized approaches required for deep study of narrowly defined problems.  BIO aims to encourage a unification of biology. Our goal is to stimulate creative integration of diverse biological disciplines using innovative experimental, theoretical, and computational approaches to discover underlying principles operating across all hierarchical levels of life, from biomolecules to organisms, species, ecosystems, and biomes.

Earlier this year we asked you, as members of the biological sciences community, for high-level ideas on the research questions and topics that would benefit from NSF investment in a truly integrated research environment. The responses from across the country offered a broad range of fundamental biological questions spanning the scales of biological organization. BIO now wants to grow and enrich the conversation with a view to priming the formation of new NSF-supported research teams around these questions.

To that end, we invite you to register for one of several Virtual Town Hall discussions, which will take place the week of September 16, 2019. These events will help identify themes for more focused, in-person discussions that will take place later in the fall – fertile soil for germination of new, foundational cross-disciplinary ideas that will unify and advance the biological sciences.

More details can be found at https://reintegratingbiology.org/.”

Next Steps for NEON


Check out the latest NEON news from the Office of the Assistant Director’s blog here or below.

“One of BIO’s highlights from this current fiscal year is the movement of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) from construction into full operations. 179 data products are now freely available to the scientific community and the public on the NEON Data Portal, and we are pleased to note that downloads of the data are rapidly increasing as is use of NEON data in publications. NEON data is also transforming ecological education at a diverse range of institutions.

NSF recently announced (NSF 19-080) its intent to launch an open competition for the management of NEON’s future operations and maintenance. NSF’s major facilities routinely undergo such a merit-based, peer-reviewed process, thus the announcement signals that NEON has matured into a fully-functioning Observatory.  The review process will take roughly two years, with the new award expected to commence in late 2021.  As always, NSF will be relying on community expertise in the merit review process, which will ensure that NEON is an effective resource for ecology for years to come.

We recognize that members of the scientific community may have questions and input for NSF as we embark on this process. We welcome community input, and to that end, we will host a NEON Information Session and Question and Answer Period on Monday, August 12, at the Ecological Society of America’s Annual meeting in Louisville, KY. For those who won’t be at ESA, questions and input can be directed to the cognizant program officer, Dr. Roland Roberts (neon-bot@nsf.gov).

We hope to see many of you at ESA.”

Meet DEB: Amanda Ingram


 

Ingram_Amanda headshot 2016

Amanda Ingram

What’s your name and role here at DEB?

My name is Amanda Ingram and I’m a rotating Program Officer in the Systematics and Biodiversity Science Cluster.

Where did you go to school?

I earned a B.S. in Biology and Environmental Science from The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA and my Ph.D. in Plant Biology from Cornell University

Where is your home institution?

Wabash College, a small liberal arts college in Indiana.

Tell us about your research.

My main line of research involves understanding the evolutionary relationships among species of Eragrostis, commonly known as the lovegrasses. This is a fascinating and diverse group of C4 grasses—many species are polyploids, morphological and anatomical diversity abounds, and they grow in (and therefore must be collected in!) all sorts of interesting places. The genus also contains a cereal crop, tef, which is incredibly important in Ethiopian agriculture and is the grain of choice for making injera. I also dabble in educational and science communication research and mentor undergraduate research projects investigating mycorrhizal associations in orchids native to Indiana.

Why do you want to serve with NSF?

NSF has supported me at every key stage of my career, so I’m excited to give back to the Foundation and to help support our research community. I’ve also loved the time I’ve spent serving on panels over the years. Finally, I’m thrilled to be fully immersed in systematics research again—at my home institution, I spend a lot of time thinking and teaching broadly about a wide range of biological topics, so I’m looking forward to the time to focus on my true scientific passions while working closely with my colleagues in SBS.

What are you looking forward to in your tenure here at NSF?

I’m looking forward to getting an insider’s perspective on how science policy is shaped, learning more about how funding decisions are made, and experiencing first-hand the wonderful NSF culture I’ve heard so much about. Plus, I’m excited to have a break from small-town life to enjoy lovely Alexandria.