Here are some things I learned last week at NSF while serving on the Advisory Committee for Biological Sciences. I expect every time I go I’ll learn something new, but in some ways what a beginner learns first can be important.
1. Anything to do with the federal government has a lot of rules. It would be impossible to try to teach us all those rules at once. Rather, the permanent people at NSF guide us away from areas we cannot change. This makes sense even if we strongly disagree with something, because there is no point in tilting at something that is not in our purview. I’m only beginning to learn what this applies to, but here are a few examples. Our committee is an advisory committee. These committees have rules under FACA, the Federal Advisory Committee Act. We don’t get to mess with these rules, so get over it. Another example is we might have ideas on making the description of Broader Impacts more clear, but we don’t get to do that. They are NSF wide, and come also from evaluations of the National Science Board. I think there are tons more things like this, so when a permanent person at NSF tells you something is off limits, listen to them. We have plenty to do within our limits.
2. The mix of temporary rotators and permanent staff at NSF is very useful,
but very confusing. I imagine the rotators come in full of energy, determined to make a difference, with big plans for change, but then settle in to understanding what the nature of possible change is. The permanent people seem to welcome the rotators and help them mold their enthusiasm to things that are feasible. The wise rotator figures out how to be mentored by the permanent people. The wise permanent person figures out how to use the new perspective of the rotators.
3. The people at NSF see more science than I’ll ever see. These people see the earliest forms of new ideas. They see so many different ideas from different perspectives, research institutions, and disciplines, that they develop a sense for what is really innovative in a way that is much more profound that I can do from my relatively narrow corner. This is not because I don’t try to be broad, but simply because with all the things I do, I have no time. If we want insight into what areas might be new and needing more funding, as was the case for molecular evolution a couple decades ago, the program officers are the people most likely to know.
4. When funding rates are so low, decisions are complicated. Proposals at IOS and DEB require pre-proposals, once a year. Proposals at MCB have a single annual deadline. A lot of thought has gone into both these processes. People who don’t like the preproposals for example, generally also want to submit twice a year. They think that if they can do this they will have more chances to get funding, therefore getting tenure, a promotion, whatever. But what they forget is the NSF is not giving out any less money with the pre-proposals. Isn’t writing a careful pre-proposal once a year a better use of your time than writing twice a year, often bouncing back from comments you don’t have time to digest? Isn’t the real question about how we can convince our universities to understand that some excellent researchers may simply not have NSF funding?
5. The workload at NSF is horrendous. Our program officers have to be really efficient with their time. They have to justify every decision they make. There are all kinds of reports they do that we don’t necessarily see. The workload is also not even with some divisions handling many more proposals and dollars than others with the same staff. I guess the rotators do this for all they learn in a short time.
6. NSF is exciting. It is a really great feeling to be part of the heart of curiosity driven science in America. It is really fun to be with so many smart, caring people, all trying to help make this nation a better place.