Writing that NSF annual report?

DSCN0364If you were lucky to get funded in the recent past, you may have an NSF annual report due now or due soon.  Here is some advice on writing those reports. First, they are important because with these reports NSF can argue with Congress about how important research is. But they are not supposed to be hyper detailed. The trick is in how you interpret the word “significant.” If you interpret it too narrowly, then you could spend weeks on this report. But you do want to be fair to your program officers. They want you to spend your time making a difference, not just writing reports. Time spent on a publication or on a new student is worth more than a detailed report, in my book.

Part of the problem is they are using the generic research.gov forms, tweaked only slightly for NSF. Remember, this is a grant, not a contract. If you make various kinds of changes but are still asking the same kinds of questions, don’t call this a significant difference.

Maybe by now you are wondering what those forms look like.  See below. You can use this to prepare for them. Remember, they are not cumulative. The final report is simply the last annual report. This is current from instructions from August 2013.

I do not use the upload document options, but just paste in text. Figures and data belong in publications. You don’t need to repeat what is in publications in any but a most general form. If you get close to their character limit, you are writing too much. Simply tell NSF in brief what you are up to. Acknowledge their support in their words whenever possible in publications: “This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Numbers xxxxxxx.”

Stay organized and you should be able to do this in under 8 hours of hard work.  Good luck!

“What are the major goals of the project?

What was accomplished under these goals (you mus provide information for at least one of the 4 categories below).

Major activities:

Specific objectives:

Significant results:

Key outcomes or other achievements:

What opportunities for training and professional development has the project provided?

How have the results been disseminated to communities of interest?

What do you plan to do during the next reporting period to accomplish the goals?

Products – what has the project produced?


Technologies or techniques

Inventions, patent applications, and/or licenses


Other produces such as data or databases, physical collections, audio or video products, software or netware, models, educational aids or curricula, instruments or equipment

Participants and other collaborating organizations – who has been involved?

REU applications

REU participants selected

What individuals have worked on the project?

What other organizations have been involved as partners?

Have other collaborators or contacts been involved?


Impact – What is the impact of the project? How has it contributed?

This component will be used to describe ways in which the work, findings, and specific products of the project have had an impact during this reporting period. For NSF purposes, include, where appropriate, discussion of data resources and the acquisition of data skills. Include the emergence of new career paths, such as data scientists or new disciplines.

What is the impact on the development of the principal discipline of the project?

What is the impact on other disciplines?

What is the impact on the development of human resources?

What is the impact on physical resources that form infrastructure?

What is the impact on institutional resources that form infrastructure?

What is the impact on information resources that form infrastructure?

What is the impact on technology transfer?

What is the impact on society beyond science and technology?


The PI is reminded that the grantee is required to obtain prior written approval from the awarding agency grants official whenever there are significant changes in the project or its direction.

Changes in approach and reasons for change

Actual or anticipated problems or delays and actions or plans to resolve them.

Changes that have significant impact on expenditures

Significant changes in use or care of human subjects

Significant changes in use or care of vertebrate animals

Significant changes in use or care of biohazards”


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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