Meet DEB: Kendra McLauchlan


Kendra McLauchlan


Name: Kendra McLauchlan, Ecosystem Science Program Officer

Education: B.A. Carleton College, M.S. and Ph.D. University of Minnesota

Home Institution: Kansas State University

Tell us about your research: I am a paleoecosystem ecologist, so I reconstruct past ecosystems, usually by deciphering records preserved in soils, sediments, leaves, and wood. My research questions tend to center around controls on long-term nitrogen cycling, changing disturbance regimes (particularly fire regimes), and how fires and ecosystems interact over space and time. I have worked mostly in the upper Midwestern U.S. because of the solid foundation of paleoecology and abundance of good kettle lakes in that region. I am starting to work in the coniferous forests of the western U.S. as well because of the urgent questions about fire in those systems. My approach is solidly empirical: I generate new datasets and synthesize large datasets to understand ecosystem processes.

What made you want to serve NSF? Being a rotator at NSF had not really been on my radar, but I’ve always enjoyed panel service and admired the gold standard of merit review that NSF upholds. When this opportunity came up, there was an overwhelming amount of support from my colleagues, lab members, friends, and family. The work atmosphere is positive and fun, and the new building in Alexandria is gorgeous.

What are you most looking forward to during your tenure at NSF? Working with talented people across different scientific disciplines, on a shared mission of enabling cutting-edge science. That shared mission can be elusive to find at a university. There are so many creative and interesting types of science, and so many different funding opportunities. It will be really rewarding to help support the broader research community of ecosystem ecologists, particularly with the sometimes difficult process of developing ideas into fundable proposals. That, and panel dinners!

PAPPG Updates

As happens every year around this time, there’s a new version of the Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide, or PAPPG (NSF 18-1). This year’s iteration includes changes to the Budget Justification, new requirements in the Project Description, and templates for Collaborators & Other Affiliations Information (just to name a few). Check out a summary of the significant changes from prior versions, and clarifications found in the new PAPPG here:

The guidelines in NSF 18-1 apply for proposals submitted or due, or awards made, on or after January 29, 2018. For instance, starting today (January 29, 2018) any RAPID or EAGER proposals intended for DEB would list the NSF 18-1 PAPPG program announcement number on the proposal cover page.

The PAPPG contains the full set of general guidelines to PIs, and includes everything from proposal preparation to award reporting and close-out. Many program specific solicitations will reference the PAPPG for instructions on proposal submission, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with this document and make sure that your Sponsored Projects Office is aware of this new version.

DEB Numbers: FY 2017 Wrap-Up

Fiscal year 2017 (FY 2017) officially closed out on September 30. Now that we are past our Fall panels, we have a chance to look back and report on the DEB Core Program merit review and funding outcomes for FY 2017.

This post follows the format we’ve used in previous years. For a refresher, and lengthier discussions of the inner workings of the metrics, you can visit the FY 2016, FY 2015, FY 2014, and FY 2013 numbers.

FY 2017 Summary Numbers

The charts below all reflect DEB Core Program projects through each stage of the review process: preliminary proposals, full proposals, and awards.

DEB reviewed 1384 preliminary proposals received under the DEB Core Programs solicitation and LTREB solicitation in January 2017, about 28% of which were invited to the full proposal stage.

The preliminary proposal invitees were joined at the full proposal stage by 1) Direct submissions to DEB under the CAREER, OPUS, and RCN solicitations, and 2) Projects shared for co-review by another NSF program. Altogether, 514 full proposals were reviewed in DEB during the Fall of 2017 (this includes the OPUS, CAREER, RCN, and co-reviews).

From this pool of full proposals, DEB made awards to 119 projects. Below, we present and discuss the Division-wide success rate and some select project demographics. The demographic numbers are presented as proportions for comparison across the review stages.

Success Rate

Success Rates 17

Figure 1: DEB Core Program success rates from fiscal year 2007 through the present. Prior to fiscal year 2012, there were two rounds of full proposal competition per fiscal year. Preliminary proposals were first submitted in January 2012, initiating the 2-stage review process and leading to the fiscal year 2013 award cohort.

Calculation Notes:

Preliminary proposal success rate is calculated as the number of invitations made divided by the number of preliminary proposals submitted.

Full proposal success rate is calculated as the number of awards made, divided by the number of full proposals reviewed, including OPUS, CAREER, and RCNs.

Note that post-2012, under the preliminary proposal system, the set of full proposals reviewed is ~80% invited full proposals and ~20% CAREER, OPUS, RCN and co-reviewed proposals, the latter of which were exempt from the preliminary proposal stage.

Overall success rate is calculated as the number of awards made divided by the total number of distinct funding requests (i.e., the sum of preliminary proposals submitted plus the exempt CAREER, OPUS, RCN, and co-reviewed full proposals).

Reminder: Elevated success rates (in 2009 and 2012) were due to:

  • a one-time ~50% increase in funding for FY2009 (the ARRA economic stimulus funding) without which success would have been ~13-15%; and,
  • a halving of proposal submissions in FY2012 (the first preliminary proposal deadline replaced a second full proposal deadline for FY2012), without which success would have been ~8-9%.

Individual and Collaborative Projects

As a reminder to readers: the gap between the proportion of single investigator projects in the preliminary proposal and full proposal stages is due to the single-investigator proposals in the CAREER and OPUS categories. The CAREER and OPUS proposals are not subject to the preliminary proposals. . The absence of CAREER and OPUS proposals at the preliminary proposal stage lowers the single investigator proportion of the preliminary proposal counts relative to the historical full proposal baseline.

Single investigators 17

Figure 2: The proportion of DEB Core Program projects lead by a single PI over time and at the different stages of merit review.

The proportion of collaborative proposals in our award portfolio rebounded from last year’s drop and is near the all-time high for both full proposals and awards. This is consistent with the general trend toward greater collaboration over the past decade and beyond.

Collab 17

Figure 3: The proportion of DEB Core Program projects with two or more different institutional participants over time and at the different stages of merit review.

Readers may notice that the collaborative and single-investigator groupings don’t sum to 100%. The remainders are intra-institutional multi-PI arrangements; such projects are certainly intellectual collaborations, but they are not a “collaborative project” per the NSF PAPPG definition (Figure 3).

Early Career Scientists

The best identifier of researcher career stage is the difference between the year that the PI obtained their Ph.D. (as self-reported by the PI) and the submission date. This “Degree Age” metric can be used as a proxy for how long each individual has been in the population of potential PIs.

PI degree age profile 17

Figure 4: Distribution of degree ages among PIs on DEB Core Program full proposal submissions.

PI degree age success rate for full 17

Figure 5: Full proposal success rates for PIs on DEB Core Program proposals by degree age. Figure displays annual data and a 5-year mean for the period of the preliminary proposal system in DEB.

Gender & Predominantly Undergraduate Institution (PUI) Status

famle PIs 17

PUIs 17

Figure 6: The representation of female PIs and predominantly undergraduate institutions in DEB Core Program proposals and awards. These two groups were noted by the community as groups of concern that would be potentially impacted by the pre-proposal system.

Concluding Thoughts

This concludes our 5th fiscal year wrap-up. This series originally started in 2013 to track metrics some PIs thought would be sensitive to preliminary proposal implementation in 2012. However, given our move to a no-deadline model and the elimination of the preliminary proposal system, next year’s fiscal year wrap-up may look a little different. We still plan on reporting our funding rates but the other metrics will change.

Shutdown. Here’s What That Means.

As you probably know from the news, Congress failed to pass a budget to fund government operations. That means federal agencies must now begin the process of shutting down all operations until further notice. We have 4 hours today to conduct an “orderly shutdown” which allows us to set our email ‘away’ messages and post this information to our blog before we are required to cease all government activities.

Program Officers and administrators will be prohibited from performing any government work including reading and/or responding to any phone calls or emails. Additionally, you will not have access to government systems like Fastlane or The building will be closed to all visitors and we won’t be able to communicate with you again until the shutdown has ended.

LTER Site Management Updates

DEB recently made a change in how the Biological Sciences Directorate’s Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites are managed. We’d like to tell you about it.

First, some background. The LTER program is financially supported by three Directorates: Biological Sciences (BIO), Geosciences (GEO), and Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE), and the Office of Polar Programs. Most LTER sites are supported and managed by BIO — more specifically by DEB. The rest reside in the Biological Oceanography and Office of Polar Programs in GEO. Within NSF, an LTER Working Group comprised of staff and Program Officers in BIO and GEO meet regularly to coordinate management activities such as site reviews, renewal panels, and budgets. Outside of NSF, the LTER National Communications Office is a hub for research synthesis, communication, outreach, education and training across all sites.

That organizational scheme for LTER has been in place for many years, albeit with various tweaks. What’s changed is how BIO’s LTER sites are managed at the level that PIs tend to care about most: their own site. Historically, one permanent Program Officer (PO) was given primary oversight for all LTER sites funded by BIO. Henry Gholz did it for many years, followed by Nancy Huntly and then by Saran Twombly. Thus, PIs grew accustomed to seeing just one PO at LTER sites and events — and they knew pretty much immediately whom to contact about challenges and opportunities.

Roughly a year ago, DEB switched to a Working Group model of managing BIO’s LTER sites. The DEB Working Group consists of three Program Officers, representing Ecosystem Sciences, Population and Community Ecology, and Evolutionary Processes, who collectively manage the program. Sites will each have a single PO who will act as their Point of Contact. POs have been assigned a portfolio of sites that generally correspond to their interests or expertise. At least one member of DEB’s LTER Working Group is a permanent PO at NSF. Management and budgetary decisions are made by consensus, except for minor stuff. The group meets bi-weekly.

We’d like to emphasize that this is not a divide-and-conquer approach to the many and diverse issues of LTER award management (e.g., site visits and renewal proposals). Quite the opposite. We enjoy discussing those issues and are usually able to reach consensus based on our collective wisdom (and perhaps missteps in our individual pasts). It’s a shared management model in which, for example, concerns about a particular site are considered in the context of all sites and everyone on the DEB LTER Working Group has a voice in decision making.

Additionally, this arrangement provides a more balanced perspective of LTER science, helping sites realize opportunities for new interdisciplinary work. And, we hope it will provide more continuity in management style and substance, since it’s extremely unlikely that there will ever by an abrupt and complete turnover of the Working Group.

Our Decision Timeline or “When will I hear back?”

With our Fall 2017 panels wrapped up, Program Officers are now reviewing panel recommendations and considering their portfolios in order to make final award and decline recommendations. For those unfamiliar with the process, recommendations from Program Officers are sent through administrative review and, lastly, agreed upon or “concurred” by the Division Director.

Decisions will be released a bit later this year than in previous years because of the end of the preliminary proposal review system and the move to ‘no deadline’ and a new solicitation will not be released until early summer 2018. Additionally, there is the added complication of a continuing resolution budget as we explained in a post from last year,

“At present, NSF is operating under a temporary budget measure, called a Continuing Resolution (or CR) … 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 do not yet have the funds needed to take action on those recommendations. Moreover, we do not know how much funding we will actually have available. Therefore, we will institute a prioritized notification system, which will be implemented as follows:

If your proposal fell into the definite decline group, then you will be getting an official notice from DEB and the proposal status will be updated in FastLane. If your proposal fell into the definite award group you will be getting a call or email from your Program Officer, along with some information about the materials you should get ready (e.g., submitting budget revisions or abstract language). If your proposal fell into the ‘hope to fund’ category, you will also be notified, and your Program Officer will be letting you know what the prospect is for your particular proposal.

As a result, investigators should start to hear back from NSF early in the new year. If you still have not heard anything by the end of January 2018, drop the Program Officer managing your proposal an email to schedule a call. But please remember that for collaborative proposals, the lead PI is the point of contact.

Rules of Life Dear Colleague Letter

The Biological Sciences Directorate at NSF has announced a new funding opportunity to support integrative research that crosses the traditional disciplinary boundaries represented by BIO Divisions or between the BIO Directorate and other NSF Directorates. This opportunity represents an initial investment in one of the NSF 10 Big Ideas, called Rules of Life. Rules of Life seeks to highlight the importance of research that forecasts the direction and dynamics of change in living systems. This funding will enable research projects dedicated to understanding processes associated with the emergence of complex properties in biological systems, and identifying underlying general principles (“rules”) across the full spectrum of biological phenomena.

In Rules of Life, “rules” are meant as the general principles or theoretical constructs that explain and predict the characteristics of living systems and for phenomena that cross spatial or organizational levels (from the molecular and sub-cellular to organisms, populations, communities, clades, and biomes) and/or temporal scales (e.g., from macromolecular folding to development to evolutionary processes across all of life. The new Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) outlines which proposal ideas and specific activities are eligible and provides preparation instructions.

The DCL sets out three funding opportunities: Conferences, EAGERs (Early Concept Grants For Exploratory Research), and RAISEs (Research Advanced by Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering). As stated in the DCL, it is important to remember that proposed ideas for Conferences and EAGERs need to appeal to more than one BIO Division; RAISE proposals need to span Directorates. PIs considering an EAGER or RAISE proposal should submit a two-page prospectus outlining their idea by February 20th, 2018. Conference proposals have a submission deadline of June 1st, 2018. PIs should contact a program officer to discuss their idea before submitting a proposal.


Invited proposals should be prepared and submitted according to the guidelines of the NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG). Inquiries should be directed to