The National Science Foundation’s Biological Sciences directorate held its biannual advisory committee meeting this month. Agency officials provided an update on the directorate’s elimination of submission deadlines, new efforts to support mid-career researchers, agency wide initiatives and plans for future investments.
Highlights from the meeting are below.
Update on elimination of deadlines for core programs
The directorate has eliminated application deadlines for its core grants. While the directorate has developed scenarios for how it will handle peer review, long-term changes remain uncertain. The first year will be used to develop best practices.
The directorate has set clear limits on the number of proposals that an investigator can submit as either a principal investigator or co-PI to each division in a given fiscal year. Proposals that are either returned without review or withdrawn prior to the proposal being placed on a peer-review panel will not count against the limit. Additionally, submitting a proposal to certain programs, such as the Rules of Life track, the Faculty Early Career Development program, or a special or agency wide solicitation will not count toward new submission limits. There is an exception in Division of Biological Infrastrucure which allows two submissions for its core programs.
To encourage senior personnel to collaborate with other investigators, the directorate has lifted limitations on investigators included on grants as either senior personnel or subawardees.
The directorate has released a frequently asked questions document.
Increased support for mid-career investigators
During the advisory council meeting in April, a number of council members voiced concern about a lack of support for mid-career researchers. The directorate categorizes “mid-career” as someone with associate professor status.
The directorate will be piloting a mid-career funding track within the Opportunities for Promoting Understanding through Synthesis program solicitation. The new track provides funds to mid-career researchers to increase their productivity and enhance mentorship opportunities. After the first year of the pilot has concluded the directorate will assess the effectiveness of the new track for potential incorporation across other programs. Proposals are due Nov. 19.
Tracking broader Impacts
During a discussion of the directorate’s efforts to support the biological sciences workforce, members addressed the lack of accountability on PIs to validate the outcomes of their broader impact activities. Broader impacts included in proposals typically addresses training of students and postdocs. Members of the council reiterated that awardees should be held accountable for making grand broader impact claims about training outcomes that would increase gender and racial diversity without proof that they have accomplished those goals by providing data.
Agency officials mentioned that while they are supportive of improving tracking of these outcomes, they continue to receive opposition from the community about administrative burden. Members of the council suggested that the agency should consider including evaluation criteria during peer review to generate a more robust discussion about training outcomes and develop more explicit language in solicitations.
BIO’s involvement in the Big Ideas initiatives
In fiscal year 2019, the directorate will provide new investments in epigenetics research and support projects that aim to build a synthetic cell under the Understanding the Rules of Life Big idea. In fiscal 2020, there will be additional investments by the directorate under the Understand the Rules of Life Big Idea that emphasize rules of interaction in biological and ecological systems.
NSF sexual harassment policy
The new NSF sexual harassment term and condition was released Sep. 21. The NSF plans to increase its oversight of violations of Title IX by periodically requesting a list of harassment complaints from funded institutions to evaluate if grantee institutions are remaining compliant with Title IX requirements. Agency officials noted that most harassment notifications collected by the NSF have not been from grantee institutions but from media reports, which has forced the NSF to develop new policies to collect this information.
The new sexual harassment policy places requirements on grantee institutions to report instances of harassment by PIs and co-PIs, but the agency expects that everyone who is supported by NSF funding also remain in compliance with the agency’s policies on harassment. Agency officials mentioned that the new harassment policy, however, is a first step. Officials emphasized that the new policy places accountability on individual PIs and co-PIs, and that broader Title IX policies have a focus on institutional responsibility.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos’ recent proposed changes to Title IX requirements was highlighted as a policy that may undermine the NSF’s new policy. However, the Education Department’s policy will not immediately affect the new NSF harassment policy.
Additional presentations highlighted the National Ecological Observatory Network and activities within the NSF’s Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering and Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education.
View the agenda and supplemental documents from the meeting here.