Science & Research

NSF protocol heightens competition for grants

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2012

In recent years, funds for science research have been stretched thin, with the number of researchers growing faster than the number of dollars. Though it was created in response to this competitive climate, a new proposal procedure at the National Science Foundation has posed additional challenges for research faculty, especially junior members.

In January, the NSF changed the proposal procedure for the biology division to include only one submission date per year. In the past, two proposal deadlines “meant two different days when the money could start flowing,” said Mark Bertness, biology professor and chair of the department for ecology and evolutionary biology. Now, the process of receiving money has significantly slowed, which may delay scientists hoping to begin testing new and innovative ideas. 

In addition to reducing the proposal process to a single deadline, the new NSF process also calls for each proposal to be preceded by a pre-proposal, a four-page overview of the project. A very small number of the pre-proposals will be funded, Bertness said.

The NSF instituted these changes in order to reduce administrative burden, according to the NSF website. In the last decade, the number of proposals submitted increased dramatically, while the number of awards given shrank, making it more difficult for the best projects to be discovered and funded. The new system should help to address the “intensifying competition for limited funds” by eliminating a large number of proposals, according to the website. 

But each eliminated proposal represents a scientist now forced to wait a year or find a new avenue for funding.

“Most everyone I know thinks this is a bad idea, but we as scientists depend on public funding,” said Stephen Porder, a junior faculty member in the ecology and evolutionary biology department. “Our society is making decisions about its priorities, and despite the huge payback of funding science, our society is not willing to pay the amount it would take to support all researchers participating in high levels of science.”

Bertness, who gets grants from the division of oceanography – which was not affected by the change – and division of environmental biology, said there is about a “seven percent chance any pre-proposal will be funded.”

“But my work has been funded continuously since 1982, so I can’t complain,” he added. Bertness traveled to Sardinia over spring break to conduct research, a project he hopes will eventually be funded by an NSF grant. “The pre-proposal has been submitted,” he shrugged. “We’ll see what happens.”

Bertness is currently using NSF grants to analyze the relationship between recreational fishing and salt marsh collapse in Cape Cod and Long Island Sound. Recreational fishing is depleting the shallow water of all the top predators, and this allows purple marsh crab populations to grow unchecked and begin consuming the salt marshes. 

But less renowned junior faculty members cannot be as cavalier about rejection.

“This is going to bias the NSF towards funding researchers with established research programs,” Porder said. “It’s very hard to explain a novel idea in four pages.”

“Tenure packets are due after six years, and Brown looks at grant support as a measure of junior faculty success,” Porder added. Under the new system, it will take much longer for new ideas to get funded, and a rejected idea will have to wait an entire year to re-enter the NSF system. Faculty members trying to make names for themselves will have less time and money than those who came before.

These new parameters have also stifled collaboration, Porder said. Updated NSF rules state that scientists may only have their names on two proposals at a time, so Porder was forced to quit his third project. He was asked to provide specific expertise for another team of scientists but had to decline. “I couldn’t let it interfere with my primary work,” he said.

Porder is a biochemist who analyzes the geology of tropical forests, attempting to understand how these carbon dioxide-absorbing systems affect thewarming planet. He has been used to an influx of two to three grants a year but is now expecting one or two. 

The NSF and University biologists acknowledge the shortage of funding as a serious roadblock for generating innovative science. “Funding of basic research and development will continue to come primarily from the federal government,” said Regina White, associate vice president for research. “The challenge for Brown, and for all research institutions, will be to diversify funding sources among the federal government, state and local governments, foundations, corporations and other private sources to meet their research funding needs.”

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