A fairly awful preproposal problem

One of the big changes in the research lives of some Americans recently has been the switch at IOS and DEB of the National Science Foundation to preproposals. It is a change that addressed a problem, has moved to solving that problem, and has been carefully and thoughtfully implemented and studied.

But the change has had some surprising results A true conservative worries about changing anything because of complex, unintended, or unexpected consequences. This is why true conservatives should worry the most about changing our climate. One might say that Edmund Burke is the father of this true conservativism, not the reckless business-first radicalism that sometimes wears the conservative cloak in the USA. But I digress.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Here is the problem: what if the program you submitted your preproposal to in good faith decides that it does not belong there, but belongs in another place? Since these things only go in once a year, I would hope the proposal would be quickly and efficiently switched. After all,  many of us have experienced NSF switching our proposals prior to the preproposal days. But what if it gets switched to a division that doesn’t have preproposals, or has different deadlines? What happens then?

How about if your proposal is not reviewed because the program officer does not think it fits so you have to sit out a year? What if then you send it to the place that program officer thought it should have gone in the first place, and that program officer also decides that it does not fit and also decides not to review it?

Your proposal has become a hot potato, bounced from place to place, never getting reviewed. Your life has become like the story we read last night in Italian class, where the northerner sent his servant down to Italy to find out from Dante the best snack, but never quite gets it right, meanwhile sending his servant back and forth to Italy in 6 month stints, only to learn eggs are best with salt.

Wouldn’t such a proposal be likely to be fairly cross disciplinary? Isn’t that something we want in our science? I do not know how often this has happened. But I would say that even once is too often. Any preproposal that is sent in deserves, in my view, to be reviewed, either at the program where it was first sent, or at another program expeditiously. It is only fair.

What do I advise? I think the only thing to do is to call or email your program officer before submitting your preproposal and be sure that you have a good home for it. And if they try this on you afterwards, get on the phone. We are all struggling to get funding, but at least we deserve to be reviewed at the preproposal level.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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2 Responses to A fairly awful preproposal problem

  1. Todd Oakley says:

    I don’t mind publicly revealing that something similar to this happened to me. A pre-proposal submitted to panel A was returned with out review, and with the recommendation to submit later to panel B, which still uses full proposals only. I pleaded with the Program Officer of Panel A, but s/he did not budge, assuring me that Panel B looked at the pre-proposal and thought the topic appropriate for panel B. One year later, I submitted to Panel B (I did skip one deadline for Panel B to get more preliminary data, and because the timing was better for me otherwise) . With turnover of program officers and no formal agreements, there was no memory of the assurance that the proposal topic fit in Panel B. So, this year, lo and behold, the PO of Panel B declined to review the proposal, indicating it should be sent to….. Panel C, which requires pre-proposals. By the way, panel A B and C are in 3 different divisions! (This is crazy to me, I don’t see this proposal as that out of the ordinary. It is interdisciplinary, but, I think fairly mainstream. It’s also awesome, don’t get me wrong there, 😉 )

    So I this year again argued my case. This time they found a panel to review it (within the same division as Panel B), and reversed the decision to return without review.

    I agree that more communication on my part with POs might have helped this situation. This is not something I am good at, in part because of my personality, but also in part because of the 3 hour time difference between CA and DC.

    I also agree that “return without review” due to subjective topical decisions should be EXCEEDINGLY rare.

    • Hi Todd, Thanks for sharing. Another thing I feel strongly about is that one should not need to have a certain personality type to succeed in science. I happen not to be very shy, but I do not think that makes me a better or worse scientist. In fact, the few geniuses I have known personally include very out going and very private people. For example, Bill Hamilton was so unable to toot his own horn that his work on inclusive fitness was initially deemed insufficient for a Ph.D., or whatever it is they have over in the UK, D. Phil.? That is, if this story is correct!

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