FastLane Review Score Options

With so many new proposal reviewers joining us, we thought now would be a good time to re-share an explanation of rating options on proposals you review.

Selecting an Overall Rating
When you review an NSF proposal, you don’t need to give it a single letter score of E (excellent), V (very good), G (good), F (fair), or P (poor). In the reviewer system (through FastLane) you can check more than one box for “Overall Rating” to give a score between two of the ranks, like V/G or G/F when the 5-point system feels too coarse. By providing a split score, you are telling NSF that the single score, or “Overall Rating,” lies somewhere between the two categories.

It’s fine but rare to provide a split score that spans more than two adjacent ratings. We most frequently see this when a reviewer loves, for example, the Intellectual Merit and is very disappointed by the Broader Impacts.  In that case, we might see a E/P.  If you decide to give such a score, it’s critically important to explain what it means; don’t make us guess!

On the flip side, be careful if you’re trying to select a score and check the wrong box: FastLane doesn’t automatically clear the first choice when you make another selection, creating the potential for unintended scores like “V/G/F/P”.

On rare occasions, a reviewer may opt not to provide an overall rating at all and just provide the written comments. While acceptable, we discourage this.

Finally, please strive to use the complete spectrum of scores.  A reviewer that tends to rate most proposals E or V is ultimately less helpful to everyone — NSF, panelists, and PIs.

How Overall Ratings are Used
Generally, the written content of the review matters more than the rating score since we don’t rank proposals by their average scores (unlike some funding agencies).  Nonetheless, scores aren’t ignored; they’re a concise indicator of a reviewer’s opinion, and they can be helpful for interpreting the written content.

During panel discussions, scores can be incredibly useful because they allow us to compare general opinions and quickly see if the reviewers are all starting from a similar place or whether there may be divergent views to work through. Being judicious in your assignment of scores can also be useful to you as a panelist to differentiate between your many assigned proposals and remember them through hours of discussions.


If you’re the PI and having issues viewing the scores of a proposal that you submitted, there is a dedicated helpdesk for FastLane issues at 1-800-673-6188 and an extensive online help resource.

Building Synthetic Microbial Communities for Biology, Mitigating Climate Change, Sustainability and Biotechnology (Synthetic Communities)

Microbes and communities of microbes have remarkable genetic, physiological and biochemical diversity, allowing them to flourish in environments all over the planet and in a variety of substrates and hosts. Given their relative importance to ecosystems around the world, to the economy and to health, researchers have studied microbial systems extensively and have a better understanding of their capabilities and impacts on hosts and the environment.

The goal of this solicitation is to support research that addresses one or more of the three themes: 1) define the underlying mechanisms or rules that drive the formation, maintenance or evolution of synthetic microbial communities, 2) use synthetic microbial communities to address fundamental biological questions and/or 3) build synthetic communities with biotechnology, bioeconomy or environmental engineering applications.

The proposal deadline is October 3rd, 2022. Please visit the program page for additional information and reach out to any of the cognizant Program Officers below.

Anthony G. Garzaaggarza@nsf.gov(703) 292-8440BIO/MCB
John McDowelljmcdowel@nsf.gov(703) 292-8008BIO/IOS
Andrea Porras-Alfaroaporrasa@nsf.gov(703) 292-2944BIO/DEB
Mamta Rawatmrawat@nsf.gov(703) 292-7265BIO/IOS

6/13/22 Virtual Office Hours Recap – You’ve Been Awarded an NSF Grant, Now What?

The Division of Environmental Biology (DEB) held its latest Virtual Office Hour on June 13, 2022. Program Officers provided information on next steps once you have received an NSF award. 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.

The presentation and other documents are available here:

Slides (PDF)

PAPPG 22-1

DEB NSF webpage

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

Q: Once a grant has been funded, what kind of supplements are available, and how competitive are those funds?

A: There are a wide variety of supplements available (e.g., Research Experience for Undergraduates, Research Experiences for Teachers, Research Opportunity Awards, Career-Life Balance, and more) once you have received an award. Check out the NSF DEB webpage and core solicitation for more information. Reach out to a cognizant program officer if you plan to apply for a supplement.

Q: How do I write a report when none of my research has worked as planned?

A: Be honest. Describe what has happened and why. Provide information on the issues and how you plan to move forward with the project in the future.  Many great scientific breakthroughs followed long periods of initial failure!

Q: Do research sabbaticals need to be communicated to PO, and how might decreased spending associated with that be handled (i.e., is it ok to extend the duration of a grant project?)?

A: If a research sabbatical is going to take you away from the funded project, reach out to your managing program officer to describe how the project will proceed in your absence. You will also likely need to submit a notification of your sabbatical (or any other adjustments in allocation of your time) through FastLane. If you need to extend a grant’s duration, you can request a No Cost Extension (NCE). The first NCE is handled primarily through your institution, and you should work with your Sponsored Research Officer (SRO).

Q: How long should/can the annual report be? Are figures and pictures acceptable in an annual report?  or is it all text?

A: Reports should be concise, but complete enough to convey the work done on the project and respond to each prompt. You cannot embed figures or tables into the report text itself, but you can upload figures and tables as separate pdf documents in addition to the report.

Q: How should collaborative projects handle annual reports?

A: Collaborative research proposals are treated as separate awards, and thus need separate reports. The annual reports from collaborating PIs can share duplicate text for many sections but should then also describe institutional-specific outcomes and issues (e.g., student training, who participated, etc.). Collaborators ideally should coordinate the content of their reports and the timing of submission, as it is very helpful during review to have all the pieces at one time.

Q: What are the most common reasons you must return an annual report for revision?

A: Common reasons include not appropriately and accurately listing all products, not including a DOI for all publications, not listing people who contributed to the project in the participant section, and not including information on the broader impact activities. Data products contributed via publications or submitted to data repository should also be included in the annual report. Check out the DEB Blog on how to write a great annual report for more information.

Q: What do you suggest for drafting travel budgets, given that costs keep going up? And what should PIs do if they run out of travel costs because their budgets were based on pre-COVID travel costs?

A: You should draft budgets based on current costs and include justification for why that travel is needed to complete your research and dissemination objectives. Once you receive an award, you are free to reallocate funds for travel costs or other areas where you see fit.

Q: How do proposed budgets generally compare to awarded budgets? In other words, how much are PIs usually asked to cut from their proposed budget?

A: Decisions to modify a budget request are made on a case-by-case basis. Budgets should include what you need to complete the project, but you should not inflate the budget in anticipation of a cut. Instead, budget carefully and provide detailed budget justification so we know how funds will be spent. See the DEB Blog post on budget justifications for more information.

A: Can you give some thoughts on what you think makes a good budget justification?

A: The budget justification is meant to describe how money will be spent and why those costs are necessary to complete the project. A detailed justification shows that you’ve thought through the project in detail and understand how the work will be accomplished. Structure the budget justification to match the structure of the budget itself (typically including the same section names and headers, like “A: Senior Personnel”, “D: Equipment”, etc.). There should be very clear connections between project activities as described in the proposal narrative and the associated costs in the budget. Check out the blog post on budget justifications for more information.

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 and the full Q&A. Our next virtual office hours will be held August 8, 2022, from 1-2pm Eastern Time and the topic will be: International Collaboration.

Upcoming Office Hours and Topics:                   

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

Mid-Career Advancement Program  

The Mid-Career Advancement (MCA) program offers an opportunity for scientists at the mid-career stage.  Mid-career scientists are at a critical career transition phase where they need to advance their research programs to ensure long-term productivity and creativity but are often constrained by service, teaching, or other activities that limit the amount of time they can devote to research.  

The MCA program provides protected time and resources to gain new skills through synergistic and mutually beneficial partnerships, typically at an institution other than the candidate’s home institution.  

A key component of a successful MCA will be the demonstration that the PI’s current research program could substantively benefit from the protected time, mentored partnership(s), and resources provided through this program.  

For questions about the program, please reach out to a cognizant MCA Program Officer at MCA.info@nsf.gov and additional FAQs on the program page here

The new solicitation (22-603) includes some significant revisions, including:

  • Pilot Track in BIO and GEO extends eligibility to Full Professors (or equivalent) at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs) only
  • 2-page Impact Statement, uploaded as supplementary document
  • 12-page limit for Project Description
  • PI and Partner must complete the Collaborative and Other Affiliations (COA) template

New solicitation released for Opportunities for Promoting Understanding through Synthesis (OPUS)

A revised solicitation for Opportunities for Promoting Understanding through Synthesis (OPUS) was recently released by the NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology (DEB). The solicitation (NSF 22-591) is targeted to individuals, typically at later-career stages, who have contributed significant insights to a field or body of research over time. The program provides an opportunity to revisit and synthesize that prior research into a unique, integrated product(s) useful to the scientific community, now and in the future.

The three major changes to the solicitation include:

  1. Proposals may now be submitted at any time.
  2. Budget details have been clarified.
  3. The Personnel List Spreadsheet is no longer required.

If you have any questions, please contact one of the following Program Officers:

Writing Budget Justifications

A Budget Justification is the narrative that accompanies your budget and can be up to five pages in length. This is where investigators validate and explain the dollar amounts they requested in their line-item budget. Justifications explain pay rates, duties of personnel, time commitments, materials and supplies, and other things necessary to complete the proposed work.

While writing your Budget Justification, you should ensure you are answering these questions:

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

As always when preparing a proposal, it’s important to follow guidance in the PAPPG. In addition to the details provided there, here are three general pieces of advice to write the best Budget Justification:

  1. Use Parallel Formatting with the Budget template

You can easily organize and format your Budget Justification using 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:

Then, your budget justification 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 $$$$, Year 2 $$$$, Year 3 $$$$, Year 4 $$$$
  2. Indiana Jones- Co-Principal Investigator, # months work/year, list specific responsibilities and explain how he arrived at this calculation. Year 1 $$$$, Year 2 $$$$, Year 3 $$$$, Year 4 $$$$
  3. Budgeting Salaries: Time and Rates

For all personnel, show what amounts you are asking for and state how you calculated those salary amounts. If you are not requesting salary, you can  provide a brief explanation of why. Give a monthly breakdown and include any fringe rates. If you are requesting more than two months of salary for any senior personnel, provide clear rationale. Some commonly seen exemptions include that the person has a soft money position or that the project scope requires buying out of teaching time (as might be the case at an undergraduate institution). Also keep in mind that the two-months of salary for an individual is counted across all NSF awards that person is associated with.

  1. Avoid common mistakes in Section G. Other Direct Costs

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

  • Section G.1 (Materials and Supplies): Materials and Supplies that will be used by students or trainees listed under Participant Support Costs can be (but are not required to be) included in G.1, allowing for the application of indirect costs.
  • Section G.3 (Consultant Services)If you are using the consultant category, the PAPPG requires information about each individual’s expertise, primary organizational affiliation, normal daily compensation rate, and number of days of expected service. You can include consultant travel cost, but will need to justify them.
  • 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 institution and PI again).
  • Section G.6 (Other Direct Costs – Other): This 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.
  • Graduate student tuition goes in G.6. Other.
  • Double check the indirect-cost (overhead) rates

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 and sometimes Sponsored Research Offices simply assume that all work is on-campus.  Because the off-campus rate is typically about half of the on-campus rate, it will make a big difference in your requested budget.

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 $8,000 for international travel to go to two meetings in Europe.” Use an airfare estimator and show the breakdown of costs.

Again, make sure your Program Officer will be able to understand 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.

Upcoming Virtual Office Hours: You’ve Been Awarded an NSF Grant, Now What?  

Join us Monday, June 13th, 1 – 2pm ET for DEB’s next Virtual Office Hour. Program Officers will provide information on next steps once you have received a NSF award. 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. 

REGISTER HERE TO PARTICIPATE

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:                                        

  • 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

Repost – Heads up potential BRC-BIO applicants!

Repost from our colleagues at the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS)

The next submission window is here (June 1-30) and more information is available!

BRC-BIO, Building Research Capacity for New Faculty in BIO, targets faculty within the first 3 years of their appointment at institutions that are underrepresented in proposal submission to the BIO Directorate and supports the establishment of sustainable research programs that also enrich undergraduate research experiences, thereby growing the STEM workforce.

Institutions underrepresented in proposal submissions to BIO include minority-serving institutions (MSIs), predominantly undergraduate institutions (PUIs), and other universities and colleges that are not among the Nation’s most research-intensive institutions. Recognizing that these institutions serve diverse and unique student populations, BRC-BIO hopes to broaden participation by expanding the types of institutions that submit proposals to the Directorate, and expand opportunities to groups underrepresented in the biological sciences, including Blacks and African Americans, Hispanics, Latinos, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, and persons with disabilities, especially those at under-resourced institutions.

Awards will provide the means for new faculty to initiate and build independent research programs by enhancing their research capacity. Projects can include biology-focused research collaborations among faculty within the same institution, across peer-, or research-intensive institutions, or partnerships with industry or other non-academic partners that advance the applicant’s research program. However, the primary goal of these awards is to build capacity for research at institutions that focus on teaching and undergraduate education, or that have limited capacity for research. BRC-BIO welcomes proposals from principal investigators who share NSF’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

In case you’ve missed it, more information can be found on the Program page. Take a look at the program FAQs and the most recent BRC BIO program Webinar!

As always, the Program Directors associated with the program are happy to answer any questions you may have.  Communicate with them directly via BRC-BIO@nsf.gov.