NSF changes Biological Anthropology program deadlines

Many of my readers who are biological anthropologists at the faculty or graduate level were surprised earlier this month at the announcement that the National Science Foundation is moving deadlines and grant cycles, effective immediately.

The details are given in the NSF "Dear Colleagues" letter. The key changes are (1) a change in the cycle from twice-yearly to 8-months for both regular (senior) awards and for dissertation improvement (DDRIG) grants, and (2) an immediate change in deadlines:

Effective beginning August 2012, the Biological Anthropology Program (Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, Directorate for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences) will convert to an 8-month interval between competitions for both the regular research (Senior) awards and the doctoral dissertation research improvement grants (DDRIG). There will be no alterations to the scope of the programs or to the merit review procedures for each, the requirements for proposals submitted to each remain unchanged, and investigators should anticipate receipt of decisions on proposals within the same timeframe (most typically, within 6 months of the submission deadline/target date). There will be an impact on the deadline/target dates for the two competitions and the purpose of this letter is to convey those changes.
The target date for submission of regular research (Senior) proposals for the next funding cycle will be altered in the process of establishing the new format. The original target date for the 2012 fall funding cycle of 20 August 2012 has been changed to 7 December 2012. Subsequent target dates will fall on the first Friday of the month following the 8-month interval: 2 August 2013; 4 April 2014; 5 December 2014.
The deadline for submission of dissertation research proposals for the 2012 fall funding cycle remains unchanged: 16 August 2012. The subsequent submission deadlines will reflect the newly instituted 8-month interval and will be the first Friday of the appropriate month: 5 April 2013; 6 December 2013; 1 August 2014. These remain firm deadlines.

Researchers looking for full information should refer first to the letter.

Upon hearing about these changes, I wrote to Carolyn Ehardt, who is the NSF program director for Biological Anthropology. She kindly agreed to a short Q-and-A about the changes. Some questions immediately came to my mind as things that future applicants would want to know about.

Hawks: Are there other NSF programs that already have experience with an 8-month cycle?

Ehardt: I do not have that degree of knowledge across all of the programs in the Foundation, but I can say that there is mounting concern at NSF regarding the increased 'workload' (proposal submission rates; very true of Bio Anth) coupled with declining budgets. As such, programs at NSF are reviewing their operating procedures and funding cycle - in relation to these factors. Some have gone to pre-proposals (BIO); others, like GSS, will now have one competition per year with a small proportion of those PIs not funded asked to resubmit a revised proposal within a couple of months for a second 'mini' competition in that FY (what they term the "one-plus" system). Others are decreasing panel sizes - and increasing the number of proposals that each panelist is required to review. Some are moving to virtual panels. Of the various options open, increasing the funding cycle by two months and then staggering the deadline/target dates so that the Program isn't running two simultaneous competitions (dissertation and Senior) twice per fiscal year seemed the least disruptive and most efficient, while maintaining (or even increasing) the quality of the merit review process. But, as I say, everyone is pushing to find mechanisms to confront the increasing proposal load (impacting not just the workload here, but that of the community of reviewers/panelists, as well) and declining budgets for aspects such as travel (mandated across the federal government and which, of course, is almost exclusively concentrated in the costs of convening panels at NSF). A number of quite different models are being discussed and instituted across the Foundation.

Hawks: On the surface, going from a twice-annually to 8-month funding cycle looks like it will decrease the number of awards per year. Will the number of funded proposals remain approximately the same, or will there be a decrease?

Ehardt:The number of awards in a fiscal year is driven most strongly by the Program's budget in conjunction with the budgetary requirements for conducting the research projects.

If you carry-out the now staggered, 8-month cycle competitions on a 'planning calendar,' you will see that in one fiscal year (Oct. 1 Sept. 30), there will be two doctoral dissertation competitions/set of awards in that fiscal year, and one Senior Research Awards competition/set of awards. In the next fiscal year, this will reverse; there will be two Senior competitions, one dissertation competition. The Program's budget allocations for dissertation and Senior awards in a given fiscal year will not change; as such, e.g., in a fiscal year with only one Senior competition, there should be a greater percentage of the highest-ranked submissions that receive funding. If there are two competitions in a fiscal year, then the allocation of awards will be spread over those two competitions, appropriate to the merit review process outcome for all proposals in each competition, as has always been the case.

Hawks: Is the overall funding level for Biological Anthropology affected by this change?

The fiscal year budget for the Program is not impacted by the change. The budget is dependent on federal allocations to the Foundation (even whether NSF has a budget, at all)

Hawks: Will success rates change under an 8-month funding cycle as opposed to the 6-month cycle?

Ehardt: This is addressed above.

Hawks: How do you anticipate that the 8-month funding cycle will affect resubmissions of grants for the next funding round?

Ehardt: I await the data required to address this question

Hawks: With dissertation proposals in particular, it seems like students might be negatively impacted by a longer funding cycle. Is there anything we can do to get students adapted to the new changes?

Ehardt: In very general terms, I would like to see our colleagues become more strongly and directly engaged with their doctoral students in the preparations for, and production of, their NSF DDRIG proposals. Planning in relation to degree requirements of different universities should be more proactive and anticipatory, and it would be excellent if there was a concomitant trend toward increased quality of DDRIG proposals, especially in the initial submission. With an 8-month cycle, there should be strong encouragement for enhanced faculty-student collaboration in producing highly competitive proposals submitted in a timely manner.

Hawks: Again, many thanks for your willingness to answer questions, and feel free to add any information that you think people need to know (or any questions you've been repeatedly asked!)

As with any changes at NSF that have impact on a program's community, these will be monitored and assessments made as to those impacts. NSF program officers are making these decisions after considerable thought and discussion, including relative assessments of the various options as they fit with their community's research needs. And should there be strong evidence of broad-scale, significant negative impact, alterations or movement to other possible models can and will occur.

I hope that these comments address the major concerns

Me again:

I really appreciate Carolyn's willingness to give such detailed answers, especially because this must be an extremely busy time.

I do know a number of researchers who were gearing up for the August 20 deadline, and who were surprised earlier this month by the change. In a couple of cases, the would-be applicants were dismayed because they are on the tenure track, and this appears to reduce their chances for funding. In others, the aspiring applicants were relieved to have the extra time.

I'll be submitting an application for the December 7 deadline. I hope that the change to a longer funding cycle will succeed in its aims of reducing the review burden.