I attended the 2017 NSF Spring Grants Conference held in Louisville in June. Below are ten takeaways that I feel are worth sharing with the Miami University research community.
TAKEAWAY 1: Talk to your program officer.
“Ask early, ask often.” The NSF staff repeated this phrase like a mantra, over and over throughout the two-day conference. Contacting a program officer (PO) is something we in OARS almost always encourage investigators to do, but many seem reluctant — they don’t want to “bother” the PO. The message at the conference was that POs do not consider such contact a bother. In fact, it helps them do their jobs better. Any time they can re-direct an investigator to a more appropriate directorate or a program that’s a better fit, they’re saving themselves and their reviewers — and the investigator! — unnecessary time and effort. Any time they can coach an investigator to a stronger proposal, they’re improving the proposal pool and increasing the likelihood their program’s investments will advance the frontiers of science. That makes them look good to their bosses (and it makes their bosses look good to members of Congress, who control NSF’s future funding!).
TAKEAWAY 2: Want to write more competitive proposals? Volunteer as a reviewer.
There’s no better way to learn about what reviewers are looking for than to participate in a panel. The best time to volunteer is right after the submission deadline for a program for which your expertise is relevant. Program officers will be ready to put together the review panels for those proposals at that time, so you will be meeting a pressing need.
Learn more about becoming a reviewer here.
TAKEAWAY 3: The deadline is the deadline.
The cut-off time for submissions to most NSF programs is 5:00pm, local time for the institution. (That means that attending a conference on the West Coast on the due date does not extend a Miami researcher’s deadline to 8:00pm ET!). FastLane is configured not to accept any additional submissions once the clock ticks over from 4:59:59pm to 5:00:00pm.
There are lots of reasons not to wait until the last minute to submit, including:
- Lots of other people will be doing the same thing and FastLane might get bogged down. If you’re submitting late enough and the system gets bogged down enough, your submission might not go through before the clock ticks over to 5:00:00pm.
- Even though the NSF will consider granting deadline extensions to institutions that have been affected by certain natural or anthropogenic events, there are a lot of things that could go wrong that wouldn’t fit the NSF’s criteria. For instance, one NSF staffer said, an internet outage — even one that’s campus-wide — will not earn you a deadline extension. If you’ve waited until the last minute to submit and the internet is down, you’ve missed your opportunity.
- If you spot an error in your submission materials, it will be too late to fix it. Once 4:59:59pm has passed, you cannot withdraw your application and re-submit. On the other hand, if you submit a day or two early, you’ll have plenty of time to withdraw and re-submit, not only in the event that you spot an error, but also in the event the program officer spots an error and alerts you to it (this does happen!). Bonus takeaway: Immediately after submission, print out from FastLane what you actually submitted (not the file from your computer you think you submitted). This lets you know right away if you accidentally submitted a file containing an outdated draft or if — as an NSF staffer said happened once — all the pages are solid orange with no visible text.
TAKEAWAY 4: Making a connection to one of NSF’s “10 Big Ideas” could give your proposal a competitive edge.
Program officers are charged with connecting the awards they make to the “10 Big Ideas” NSF Director France Córdova laid out in testimony to Congress earlier this year. If your proposal articulates an explicit connection to one of the “10 Big Ideas” (specifically one of the six research ideas), you’ll be making the PO’s job easier. In an environment where there are insufficient funds to support all of the meritorious projects proposed, that might make the difference between being offered an award and not.
TAKEAWAY 5: Make your “moonshot” idea a second aim.
When resources are tight, those who control the pursestrings often have little appetite for risk-taking. Taking a chance on something that’s relatively likely to fail — never mind the implicit consequences of success — seems potentially wasteful and opens decision-makers up to being second-guessed. It’s much safer to bet on the anodyne project highly likely to result in incremental progress. For that reason, Jennifer Weller, a Program Director in the Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI), suggests those seeking support for a “moonshot” idea make that idea a second aim in a proposal in which the first aim is more conservative. This approach virtually guarantees reviewers and POs a return on investment, while also opening the door to the possibility of transformational change.
TAKEAWAY 6: Broader Impacts are the NSF’s hedge against the risk inherent to science.
When it comes to Broader Impacts, one of the NSF’s two review criteria (along with Intellectual Merit), Weller suggested it might be useful to investigators and proposal writers to think again in terms of risk. There’s always a chance, however small, that the science might not “work out” in a funded project. Broader Impacts — benefits to society that derive from the project — are a parry against that possibility. They’re what Congress and U.S. taxpayers get for their money even when science is not progressed.
Bonus takeaway for applicants to DBI: Weller reported that Broader Impacts are assigned a weight of about 30% in the review of proposals submitted to DBI (with the exception of CAREER proposals, where Broader Impacts are weighted at 50%). Note that this relative weighting varies from division to division and directorate to directorate.
TAKEAWAY 7: Cost sharing is bad, and investigators don’t always recognize it. But NSF does. (And so does OARS!)
To keep all applicants on a level playing field, the NSF prohibits any institution from volunteering to assume responsibility for any of the costs related to a project. (Some programs, like the Major Research Instrumentation or MRI program, are exceptions and actually require a specified percentage of cost share from the institution). The problem is that not all investigators realize what constitutes cost sharing. The rule is that any cost-generating item or activity mentioned in the project narrative must be associated with a reasonable cost in the budget. Any cost-generating item or activity that is not included in the budget or for which the budget indicates the cost, or any portion of the cost, will be borne by the institution — including a reduced indirect cost rate — is cost share. (Note that this does not include resources discussed in the Facilities, Equipment, and Other Resources section of the narrative. Costs for items and activities discussed in this section are assumed to be included in the institution’s indirect cost rate.)
TAKEAWAY 8: “Participant support” might not mean what you think it means.
In an NSF budget, participant support costs are (only) those costs related to travel and subsistence for participants in conferences and training activities. Entertainment is not an allowable expense. Speakers and faculty leaders of conferences and training activities are not participants. A student can be a participant or an employee on a project, but not both. If your proposal does not include conducting a conference or training activities, there should be no participant support costs included in your budget. Incentives offered to human subjects who participate in studies are not participant support costs.
TAKEAWAY 9: When it comes to expenses, document, document, document.
NSF’s Office of the Inspector General regularly performs audits of institutions and projects that receive grant funds. To avoid negative findings in the event that your grant is audited, make sure to carefully document all expenses charged to the grant and any relevant special circumstances. The look-back period for audits is three years, so if there are details — reasoning, conversations, special circumstances — related to expenses you think you won’t remember in three years’ time, make a note of them when they occur and keep that note with your records for the project.
TAKEAWAY 10: Remember to submit your reports.
There are very real consequences to failing to submit required reports. For one thing, if a report is overdue, all administrative actions — including change in scope and change in project personnel — are blocked for the project. More importantly, PIs and co-PIs on projects with overdue reports are blocked from receiving further funding from NSF. One program officer related an anecdote about having extra money available to fund a project on his “wait list” after an award he’d made had been declined. He was especially enthusiastic about the proposed project and was looking forward to making the $1 million award. That all ended when he looked the PI up in the system and discovered a report from another of the PI’s projects was overdue, meaning that the PI was not eligible to receive additional funds.
If you have any questions about these ten takeaways — or anything else about NSF grants — ask them in the comments or contact your OARS representative.
Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.