Monday, December 01, 2008

So you want a piece of the NSF pie? The NSF is NOT the NIH.

I've decided to put down some thoughts of mine regarding obtaining funding from the NSF. This will likely end up being a series of posts...

First, the necessary disclaimer: These are my opinions only, shaped by my experiences as an NSF-funded investigator (in a College of Medicine), a reviewer of NSF proposals, plus the experiences of some friends and collaborators. Your mileage will almost certainly vary.

Second, some background: I was awarded my first NSF grant in 2001. I renewed that in 2004 and have recently heard that my second renewal has been recommended for funding. I am also PI on an NSF REU Site grant. I have reviewed many NSF proposals, most from the BIO directorate and some from MPS, on an ad hoc basis. Finally, I sat on an NSF SBIR review panel for two years.

Now, let's get down to business here. If you're in the biological sciences, please repeat after me:

The NSF is NOT the NIH.

Keep repeating this until you are firmly convinced of the truth in that statement.

Now you would think that that's obvious, right? Apparently it isn't to about 25% of the applicants whose proposals I've reviewed for the BIO directorate...

Here are some, but not all, major differences:

1) Budget-

The projected FY 2009 NIH budget is $28.7 billion for R&D expenditures. The NSF? $4.5 billion for R&D. This is under the current Continuing Resolution. See the AAAS September R&D Update to see where I got these figures. These numbers have a very profound effect on many aspects of NSF funding versus NIH...

2) Mission-

The mission of the NIH is "science in pursuit of fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to extend healthy life and reduce the burdens of illness and disability."

The mission of the NSF "includes support for all fields of fundamental science and engineering, except for medical sciences." [Emphasis mine.]

The NIH funds biomedical research. The NSF funds all of the other sciences. Including social. Plus engineering. And mathematics. And the NSF mission includes a strong science education component (which I believe accounts for the disparity between the $6 billion total budget of the NSF versus the $4.5 billion it spends on R&D).

So, don't go proposing to solve cancer, or heart disease, or Alzheimer's in your NSF proposal. If you do I can pretty much guarantee it won't be funded. Basic biological science is fine (otherwise I wouldn't be funded), so there is some overlap between the NSF and NIH. But you need to be careful about how you sell your basic science to the NSF. Can't figure out how to sell your science without referring to the medical benefits of the research? Don't bother applying to the NSF.

3) Scope-

The scope (budget and period of funding) of an NSF proposal is very different to that of an NIH R01. The NSF keeps some interesting funding statistics. If you're considering applying to the NSF, go find the data for the last year or two for the directorate and organization (within the directorate) you are most likely going to send your proposal to. Study those numbers. Not the funding rates. The mean award duration and median annual award size. Your proposal needs to be in the same ballpark as those numbers (unless you're applying to a special program with special budget instructions). Sure, you can ask for more time and/or money, but you'd better do a very, very good job of justifying why you need more.

Oh yeah, one other thing. Those median annual award sizes? That's total. Direct plus indirect costs.

4) Proposals-

Aside from the fact that an NSF proposal is limited to 15 pages versus the (current) 25 page limit at NIH, there are other differences. I'm not going to go into great detail here. I'll probably cover some of that stuff in later posts. The main thing is to go study the NSF review criteria. And take them seriously. Intellectual Merit pretty much refers to the quality of the science proposed (and of the proposer). That Broader Impact stuff? Not something the NIH puts much weight on. The NSF, on the other hand, is very serious about it. I'm going to write a post devoted purely to Broader Impacts since this is where I've seen many proposals fail. Particularly those form new investigators.

5) Effect on tenure-

This is aimed at those of you in a College of Medicine. I got tenure based on my NSF funding. Here that's considered sufficient to satisfy the funding part of the tenure equation (assuming you've done very well on all other parts of the equation). That is not the case in all medical schools. There are Deans of medical schools who consider NSF money second class at best and will not approve tenure for someone with only NSF funding. Be sure you know what the ground rules are at your institution.