On Thursday, 18 October 2007, Joanne Tornow, Office of the NSF Director and Chair of the Impact of Proposal and Award Management Mechanisms (IPAMM) working group, briefed the Biological Sciences Directorate Advisory Committee.
The IPAMM working group was established by NSF in March 2006 to address concerns that the dramatic decline in funding rate for research proposals (from 30 percent in Fiscal Year (FY) 2000 to 21 percent in FY 2006) would negatively impact the U.S. scientific enterprise. The working group was charged to “recommend policies and preferred practices to improve NSF’s program announcement and solicitation processes in ways that achieve appropriate balances between proposal funding rates, award sizes and award durations…”
To conduct the study, IPAMM collected data from internal NSF databases and surveys of all principal investigators (PIs) who submitted research proposals during the last three fiscal years.
General findings on funding rate trends included:
- Research proposal submissions to NSF increased as a result of an increase in the applicant pool and an increase in the number of proposals submitted per applicant. The applicant pool expanded as a result of an increase in research capacity, a loss of funding from other sources, and the increased use by NSF of targeted solicitations in new areas. External institutional pressures, namely the need to build a grant record for tenure and promotion as well as fund research infrastructure, contributed to the increase in the number of proposals submitted per applicant.
- The quality of proposals did not decrease, and yet the number of high-quality proposals that were funded declined.
- No evidence that new PI’s, institution types, minorities, or women were disproportionately affected by low funding rates compared to the overall population of PI’s.
- The NSF peer review system is overstressed; reviewers experienced increased workloads, spending less time on each review, and consequently the PI-survey indicated that review-quality had diminished.
- Although NSF has maintained both the percentage of proposals that are processed within 6 months and the average time to decision since FY 2002, there is growing anxiety from the PI community with the time to decision.
With respect to trends within the BIO directorate:
- While research proposal funding rates at the NSF-level appeared to flatten in FY 2005-2006, the funding rate for BIO has continued to trend downward and may not yet have reached its lowest point.
- Research proposal submissions in BIO grew by 50 percent from FY 1997 to FY 2006.
The IPAMM working group assessed efforts within the various NSF organizations to manage increasing proposal submissions and declining funding rates, including the following practices:
- Limiting proposal submissions (requiring preliminary proposal, limiting submissions from a given institution, limiting submissions from individual investigators)
- Increasing pool of available funds to allow more awards (combine funds for 2 FYs into 1 competition, adjust balance of standard and continuing grants)
In conclusion, the IPAMM report did not recommend a single best practice for managing proposal submissions and funding rates; instead, it recommended a flexible, but balanced approach to meet changing needs, implemented on a case-by-case basis among the program, division, and/or directorate leadership.
The Final Report of the IPAMM working group can be viewed at: http://www.nsf.gov/od/ipamm/ipamm.jsp
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