Students examine and take notes on samples from pools at Miami University's Ecology Research Center.

NSF BIO Directorate moves to no deadline, full proposal process

Yoshi Tomoyasu and Courtney Clark-Hachtel look at an image of a beetle on a computer monitor in Tomoyasu's lab.
Biology researchers like Associate Professor Yoshi Tomoyasu (left) and graduate student Courtney Clark-Hachtel will no longer have to submit pre-proposals or meet deadlines to apply for funding from key NSF programs.

On October 5, the National Science Foundation (NSF) issued a “Dear Colleague” letter announcing two important changes in submission procedures for the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO). Both changes take effect starting in January.

Change 1: No deadlines

The first change is that there will no longer be any deadlines for proposals submitted to core programs in the Division of Environmental Biology (DEB), the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS), the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB), or submitted to programs in the Research Resources Cluster of the Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI). This change does not special programs in BIO, such as Dimensions of Biodiversity, nor does it affect proposal submitted to BIO for NSF-wide programs, such as the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) and Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) programs. These programs will continue to have deadlines as specified in their respective program solicitations.

Change 2: No pre-proposals for DEB and IOS

The second change is that pre-proposals for submissions to DEB and IOS core programs will no longer be required.

NSF’s rationale

NSF says it made the changes to increase flexibility for investigators and to reduce institutional burden. In particular, according to a post on DEB’s blog, DEBrief, BIO senior staff felt the pre-proposal process effectively discouraged interdisciplinary research because preliminary proposals could not be co-reviewed across programs. Eliminating pre-proposals for DEB and IOS core programs eliminates that problem and opens up possibilities for more creative, complex projects that cross BIO divisions.

In addition, eliminating deadlines allows researchers to plan proposal preparation around teaching loads, professional meetings, field work, and personal life events. Since investigators should no longer feel rushed to complete a proposal to meet a deadline, NSF hopes to see more well-developed, competitive proposals.

Regardless of improved proposal quality, overall workloads for NSF staff should be better distributed throughout the year, with no annual “crunch time” resulting from deadline cycles. NSF also hopes human nature will effectively reduce the number of applications to these popular programs, thereby reducing workload. Without a firm deadline to impose a sense of urgency, it’s likely fewer investigators will ever get around to submitting a proposal in a given year.

Community reaction

NSF is touting the changes as good news for investigators, but some in the research community have concerns. “There is still a lot of uncertainty about how often panel reviews will occur,” says Maria Gonzalez, a professor in Miami’s Department of Biology and a former program officer in NSF’s BIO directorate. It could be that panels will be assembled every few months or after a set number of proposals has been submitted.

Mike Vanni, also a professor in Miami’s Department of Biology and a former program officer in NSF’s BIO directorate, says whatever “triggers” NSF establishes for assembling review panels will “need to be balanced against the goal of giving the majority of PIs a decision within six months of submission.”

Many investigators worry that these practical considerations will cause BIO to establish unspoken, internal deadlines that they will have to guess at to be competitive for funding. Gonzalez, Vanni, and Joyce Fernandes, another Miami biology professor who is a former program officer in NSF’s BIO directorate, recommend their colleagues take a wait and see approach. They say it’s likely NSF staff are still ironing out some of the details themselves. While staff may be able to guess at some effects of the changes, they won’t know specifically what to expect for at least a year after the new solicitations are released.

We will post updates as more becomes known. In the meantime, learn more by reading NSF’s answers to frequently asked questions about these changes.


November 20, 2017: MCB core program submission deadline remains in effect

December 8, 2017: DBI Research Resources Cluster’s Improvements in Facilities, Communications, and Equipment at Biological Field Stations and Marine Laboratories (FSML) deadline remains in effect

FY2018 (ends September 30, 2018): Full proposals invited from January 2017 DEB and IOS pre-proposal competitions and submitted for the August 2017 deadlines will be reviewed and awards will be made with FY2018 funds. CAREER proposals submitted to BIO divisions for the July 2017 deadline will be reviewed and awards till be made with FY2018 funds.

January 2018: No call for DEB and IOS preliminary proposals will be issued.

Spring/summer 2018: DEB, IOS, MCB, and DBI  will release new solicitations with guidelines for submitting full proposals at any time. An announcement about the BIO initiative “Understanding the Rules of Life” will be made and guidelines issued. Once the solicitations are released (but not before), proposals may be submitted at any time.

FY2019 (begins October 1, 2018): The first awards from proposals submitted under the new solicitations will be made.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Photos by Miami University Photo Services.

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