Workshops and RCNs: an Explainer

Modern science is characterized by a proliferation of ideas, data, papers, and models. Amid all this research activity, there is an increasing need to synthesize research findings, to bridge ideas, and direct new research around certain important areas. To catalyze these efforts, NSF offers two funding mechanisms: workshops and Research Coordination Networks (RCNs). Some of the most interesting ideas in DEB are emerging out of these workshops and RCNs.

Your research area may benefit from a workshop or RCN if:

*you have reason to believe the research field has become stuck in some way

*you notice different groups are studying the same thing but speaking different languages

*variation in methods seem to be hampering progress

What do POs look for in an RCN or workshop?

A good workshop or RCN proposal starts with a good idea. From there, we like to see a well-articulated need to bring people together around a novel topic and to meet outside of regularly scheduled annual meetings or recurring workshops. The proposal should include a solid plan for accomplishing the integration, and an outline of the products that will benefit the larger research community. Keep in mind that RCNs are for coordination of research, not conducting the research itself.

There is a huge diversity in how workshops and RCNs can function. These awards allow for a lot of creativity and outside-the-box thinking is highly encouraged. A wide range of approaches are suitable for workshop goals, including methods comparisons, database creation, and conceptual synthesis. Sometimes several approaches are necessary to accomplish the research coordination.

How are RCNs similar or different from workshops?

1. Duration and scope.

A single workshop can be a great way to test the waters and gauge community interest, or accomplish a single, focused goal. Another possibility is a recurring workshop that provides a critical piece of training not widely available elsewhere. RCNs are designed for longer-term, multi-year efforts that will take a sustained drive to accomplish. RCNs usually need to have a larger research community in mind, trajectory for the work, and a steering committee who can keep the network on track.

This “larger research community” we’re referring to is what sets RCNs apart from regular workshops. Instead of bringing together the same like-minded colleagues, RCNs usually bring together scientists and scholars from a variety of backgrounds who would not otherwise interact.

2. The review process.

Workshop proposals under $100,000 are not subject to peer-based merit review. RCNs and large workshop proposals are evaluated by the NSF merit review process using ad hoc or panel review, or both. In both RCNs and workshops, the need for intellectual synthesis must be demonstrated and the mechanism for accomplishing this goal must be clearly described. For PIs accustomed to writing research proposals, this is a shift in focus. The proposal may require an organizational chart, a list of initial participants, descriptions of workshop activities, and clear mechanisms for assessment. Successful proposals generally have a plan for recruiting early career or underrepresented scientists. These elements in the proposal indicate if the synthesis effort is likely to be successful or not.

Why is it important to contact your PO BEFORE you submit an idea for an RCN/workshop?

Unlike regular research proposals, only a handful of workshop or RCN proposals are submitted each year to a program. Thus, it is important for the POs to recognize which research areas may be most suitable for synthesis, the depth of support for these areas, and the process behind developing the proposals that are submitted. Additionally, POs can help guide the PI toward “best practices” for these efforts, and help make sure that PIs are prepared for the time and intellectual commitment required for effective leadership of an RCN or workshop. We also suggest broadly reaching out in your research community or to other PIs who have led a workshop or RCN and inviting speakers and primaries who are diverse and representative of the community at large.

Things to think about before contacting the PO:

    • What need in the research community is being addressed by the RCN/workshop?
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • What would a successful outcome look like and who would benefit from these outcome(s)?

Take home points: The most important point is that these awards fund synthesis efforts. Our science needs these more than ever right now. DEB is currently accepting both workshop proposals and RCN submissions.



Contacting a Program Officer

We want to hear from you! NSF Program Officers (POs) are here to answer your questions, and listen to your ideas.

The role of a PO includes aspects of being a liaison, translator, customer service representative, coach, advisor, and interpreter all rolled into one. 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 on the other side of the desk.

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

Why should I contact a NSF Program Officer?

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

  • Is it about a RAPID, RAISE, EAGER, ROA, RCN, CNH, or workshop? For these types of proposals, we encourage PIs to get in touch with a PO. Doing so will give you a better sense of what NSF is looking for in those types of proposals.
  • Did a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) explicitly tell you to? Look for the contact information in the letter and email that PO.
  • Are you curious about which DEB cluster 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 discuss how to move forward.

How do I contact a NSF Program Officer?

Most POs agree that the best way to start a conversation is to email them first and set up a time to talk on the phone. Please don’t travel to NSF just to meet with POs; it’s not very productive. Save money and time, and lessen your environmental footprint by using the phone or Skype.

In your initial email, include a paragraph or short summary of what you want to discuss. Do not send all or part of a proposal you want to submit. A summary only, please. 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.

How do I know which DEB Program Officer to email?

Except in one situation (see below), it really doesn’t matter. Each of our POs will be able to answer your question(s). However, if you’re interested in exploring a specific field of research, it might be useful 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. And please check your spam folder.

When it does matter which PO to contact is when you want to discuss a specific proposal. In that case, you should contact the PO who is listed on Fastlane as managing that proposal. He/she 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.

When should I NOT contact a NSF Program Officer?

Make sure the information you need isn’t already available on our website, our blog, in the PAPPG, solicitation, or DCL. If you are asking something about a currently funded proposal, be sure to look in the Award Terms & Conditions for guidance before contacting a PO. And before you fire off that email or pick up the phone if your proposal is declined, please give yourself some time to digest and reflect on the reviews before you contact a PO with questions.

Talk to you soon!

Paula Mabee, Former Division Director, Bids Farewell to DEB

Paula Mabee, Division Director, BIO/DEB

Paula Mabee


After serving as Division Director for nearly two and a half years, I left DEB at the end of 2017, needing to return to my personal life and my academic home. After decades of NSF funding, panel service, and sending in ad hoc reviews, the opportunity to not only view, but to at least partially direct what happens behind the curtain, was immensely satisfying. And, from a personal standpoint, the time at NSF was probably one of the most interesting and fulfilling chapters of my professional life. Why? What did I learn about NSF to pass along to the DEB community, now that I’m on the “outside” again? What might you not know about the inner workings of NSF that I can share with you?

First and foremost, though previous participation as a panelist always left me with the feeling of trust in NSF, from experience on the inside, I can further say that I have enormous respect for the merit review processes put in place and the people who carry them out. The people – your scientific peers who are serving as Program Officers – and the administrative staff – that well-educated and carefully chosen cadre of personnel in DEB – are idealistically committed to the mission of supporting fundamental science for the well-being of the planet. They hold fairness as a core value and are scrupulous in its application. They also care about you as an individual; they take pride in your successes and pay attention to your journey through various career stages. Whether your proposal is awarded or declined, they have great respect for you. Unfortunately, given that nearly a third of the proposals received are well worth funding, and yet DEB success rates are much lower, POs are often the bearers of hard news. This is a tough position to be in – and out of their control – and yet one of their core values is to be as communicative and transparent with you as possible. They have my deepest respect.

Award decisions are made and justified by your scientific peers – the Program Officers serving at NSF – and my job included oversight of this process. For example, if a PO recommended declining a proposal that was deemed highly competitive by a panel (or, vice versa, recommending a proposal that was deemed non-competitive), an explicit and defensible justification was required. In each situation, I saw the thorough and thoughtful approach of POs in considering both the science and careers of the PIs.

And the science! Intellectually, it was really fun to read across the different proposals submitted to DEB. Great ideas in fundamental, diverse, and ambitious areas of science come into DEB. Part of the process for awarding funding involves presenting the list of proposals for recommendation or decline to the Division Director and Deputy Director. The POs pick out a few proposals that they find the most compelling or illustrative of what is happening in a field, and they describe the science to us. I was often filled with admiration for the ambition and vision of the science proposed by DEB PIs. The accomplishments of science and our understanding of the natural world are due to incredible people like you. And NSF recognizes this like no other institution.

Other things from my time at NSF:

  • DEB is responsive! When a directive or inquiry comes to BIO from our bosses, we answer pronto! Days are dynamic, busy, and long – think Madame Secretary and VEEP. Everything possible is being done to demonstrate the value of fundamental science to our nation!
  • The camaraderie in DEB is palpable. The teamwork between administrative and scientific staff is complementary and highly involved. We like each other 🙂
  • The learning curve for a rotator (PO or Division Director) is steep, but necessary and justified. It’s all about fairness!!! There are detailed processes that protect your proposal from reviewers or POs with a conflict of interest. NSF is looking out for you by training up the personnel responsible for handling your proposals.
  • Introspection, reflection. Where is your field going? What did you publish recently? What was the upshot of that workshop or meeting? Your NSF POs (and leadership) are listening. Retreats are a big thing in DEB – a time to hash over whether changes need to happen, to constantly re-evaluate whether NSF solicitations and DEB organizational structure reflects where your field needs to be.
  • Balancing the continued commitment to core programs with more specialized solicitations is one of the more stimulating aspects of serving as Division Director.   Discerning the future ‘fundamental’ or ‘core’ is best done as a team (see above).
  • It’s about the data. NSF – and DEB – has an appetite for remorseless analysis of the internal data relating e.g., success rates to gender, diversity, career stages, etc. To their dismay, little of this can be shared with you, i.e., the outside community, because these are data that are shared by PIs with the agency – not you. And NSF protects this.

I leave DEB filled with deep respect for the scientists serving in rotating or permanent roles at NSF and for the incredibly smart and committed administrative staff who are interested in spending their lives in service to furthering your science. It was a privilege to work with them. If you have the opportunity to serve DEB, please do – say “yes” to those requests for ad hoc reviews (especially – they are a major bottleneck in the review process), panel service, and the opportunity to be a Program Officer or Division Director. I am also grateful for the opportunity to meet the many scientists involved in the awesome science supported by DEB, likely many of you who are reading this blog.

Meet DEB: Kaitlin McDonald


Kaitlin McDonald


Where are you attending school?

I’m finishing up my MS in environmental science and policy at Johns Hopkins.

What’s your role here at DEB?

I’m a Science Assistant and looking forward to learning more about this role and assisting in program and proposal management.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

In my free time I really enjoy hiking (my most recent, favorite hike), reading, and complementing strangers’ dogs. I recently started rock-climbing and have a new appreciation for the Earth’s surface.

Would you rather be a fish or a bird?

Owls are the greatest but I think it would be really interesting to live as a species of deep sea fish, like the lantern fish or the cookiecutter shark.

Proposal & Award Policy Newsletter

To help keep PIs and Sponsored Projects Offices up to date on the latest at NSF, from policy changes and clarifications, to new systems for proposal submission, and NSF in-person and online outreach events, the Division of Institution and Award Support (DIAS) produces the quarterly Proposal & Award Policy Newsletter.

The latest version of the newsletter, which includes instructions for subscribing to the newsletter, can be found here: There is also an online repository of all of the issues of the Proposal & Award Policy newsletter.

Be sure to share this resource with your colleagues and your institution’s Sponsored Projects Office.

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!