This week the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Biological Sciences Advisory Committee convened to provide budget and programmatic updates.
In May, Congress provided a modest increase to the NSF’s budget for FY18. The proposed FY19 budget request would fund the agency at $7.47 billion, reducing the agency’s appropriation back to FY17 enacted amounts.
Joanne Tornow, assistant director for the BIO directorate, updated the committee on NSF’s sexual harassment policy. Under the developing policy the agency expects institutions to provide notice of any infraction within seven days. Any individual can submit complaints to the NSF with a 48-hour expected response time. The policy is open now for public comment.
Committee members voiced concern with the directorate’s elimination of the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant program. According to officials, this change came as a result of the directorate’s move to remove submission deadlines to facilitate more integrated research projects. DDIGs, while small in relation to the directorate’s budget, consumed a large amount of man-power and review resources. Members of the committee suggested that professional societies may be better positioned to take up a similar funding mechanism to support doctoral students.
Jim Deshler, deputy division director for the Division of Biological Infrastructure, presented the NSF’s plans to expand its public and private partnerships. Led by both the BIO and the Computer and Information Science and Engineering directorates, the agency is seeking to grow its partnerships 5 percent relative to a 2017 baseline by Sept. 30, 2019.
In April 2017 the Trump administration released a memo that encouraged agencies to reassess their overall effectiveness and efficiencies. In response, the NSF developed the Renewing NSF initiative. Under this initiative, the agency will be conducting activities in four major thematic areas
- making information and technology work more efficiently,
- adapting NSF’s work and workforce,
- streamlining, standardizing and simplifying programs and processes, and
- expanding and deepening public and private partnerships.
The NSF has begun a pilot that will use artificial intelligence to select reviewers for review panels. Erwin Gianchandani, deputy assistant director for CISE, emphasized that the goal of adapting NSF’s workforce will not be to decrease the current personnel number but to create a more efficient workforce that can work better with automation tools.
Last year, BIO announced that the directorate would be eliminating deadlines for its main research programs with little to no information for how this change would affect the review process. During the committee meeting, BIO leadership stated that the new submission process is designed to encourage collaboration and prevent investigators from submitting half-baked proposals.
The directorate plans to use the first year as a learning period to ensure that the new policy is successful. Officials emphasized that they won’t let proposals to “sit around and become stale.” The first solicitations under the new rolling submission policy are scheduled to be released this summer.
The meeting closed with France Cordova, director of the NSF, providing remarks on the agency’s plans for 2019 and 2020. The agency will increase its support for its 10 Big Ideas with an emphasis on ideas that are ready to go into production, labelled accelerators, for FY19 and FY20.
This week the agency will be holding a retreat with senior management to figure out what solicitations and support systems are needed to facilitate the successful rollout of the ideas. Cordova mentioned plans to expand the usual merit review by including industry partners as well as other relevant stakeholders. She acknowledged that focusing on grand challenges like the big ideas isn’t the same as focusing on basic research, but it’s important to ensure that the scientific enterprise is moving forward in a positive way.