Where Have We Been? Attending the Spring NSF BIO Advisory Committee Meeting

 

The biannual Directorate for Biological Sciences Advisory Committee met this week to discuss goings-on in the BIO directorate and to highlight partnerships that align with the National Science Foundation’s new priorities.

James Olds, assistant director for the BIO directorate, provided an update on the agency’s budget, its 10 big ideas framework, its relocation, and its progress on the National Ecological Observatory Network.

Officials unveiled a portfolio-analysis tool that they’ll use to assess the BIO directorate’s research footprint within NSF and across the federal government.  The tool one day could assist the agency with reassessing research priorities and help highlight what the agency does in a more concrete fashion.

Meanwhile, officials announced that the internal evaluation of the Instrument Development for Biological Research program is coming to a close.  The evaluation looked at the impact of the program on the biological science research community, sought to identify gaps in instrumentation support, and tried to identify how best to disseminate resources that are developed. The program will reinstate solicitations after its fiscal 2016 hiatus; however, no solicitation date was provided.

In addition, the committee learned about the results of a pilot program launched in 2012 in the Divisions of Environmental Biology and Integrative Organismal Systems. This pilot program imposed a mandatory preliminary proposal for all applications, switched solicitations to one-year submissions, and limited the number of proposals that a principal investigator could be involved in to two per cycle.

The pilot program’s goals were to reduce investigator workload, reduce reviewer burdens, improve panel review quality, reduce program officer workload, and increase funding rates for full proposals.   This programmatic change was met with a wide range of opinions, including concerns that early-career investigators could be negatively affected and that the program portfolio would not be balanced.

The preliminary findings reported to the committee were mixed.  While the pilot achieved most of its goals, the impact of the effect of the programmatic changes on investigators continues to be an issue, and NSF staff worry that preliminary proposals may be narrowing the scope of the research funded over time. The five-year report is undergoing internal review and will be made available to the public later this year.  The Office of Integrative Activities conducted a separate review of the pilot and will make its assessment available as well.

The meeting also highlighted international and intergovernmental collaborations with the BIO directorate in support of one of the NSF’s 10 big ideas, Understanding the Rules of Life, which is being led by the directorate.

Partnerships include:

The meeting closed with discussions on the future of the STEM workforce, how the public views science, and how the NSF can do a better job at selling the value of the research it supports.

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