Wednesday, May 29, 2019

NSF Panels

The government shut down in January led to delays at the National Science Foundation and only recently announcing decisions on grants submitted last fall. For those who successfully received awards, congratulations! For those who didn't, don't take it personally, buckle up and try again.

For those who don't know how the process works, for each grant program, the program directors organize one or more panels which typically meets in person at NSF headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. A typical panel has about a dozen panelists and twenty or so proposals. Before the panels, each proposal gets at least three reviews by the panelists. Discussions ensue over a day or two, proposals get sorted into categories: Highly Competitive, Competitive, Low Competitive and Not Competitive and then ranked ordered in the top categories.

There are tight rules for Conflict-of-Interest and those who are conflicted have to leave the room during the discussions on those papers.

If you do get asked to serve on a panel, you should definitely do so. You get to see how the process works and help influence funding and research directions in your field. You can't reveal when you serve on a particular panel but you can say "Served on NSF Panels" on your CV.

Panels tend to take proposals that will likely make progress and not take ones less risky. Funding risky proposals is specifically mentioned to the panel but when push comes to shove and there is less funding than worthy proposals, panelists gravitate towards proposals that don't take chances.

Panels are not unlike conference program committees. It didn't always work this way, it used to be more like journal publications. I remember when the program director would send out proposals for outside reviews and then make funding decisions. That gave the program director more discretion to fund a wider variety of proposals.

The NSF budget for computing goes up slowly while the number of academic computer scientists grows at a much larger clip. Until this changes, we'll have more and more worthy proposals unfunded, particularly proposals of bold risky projects. That's the saddest part of all.

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