I would like to thank Chemical & Engineering News for this opportunity to communicate directly with the community concerning our motivations for moving to one submission window for unsolicited proposals and explain how the change will potentially decrease the time to decision, improve award rates, and reduce workload on the community.
In recent years, principal investigators (PIs) were able to submit unsolicited proposals to the National Science Foundation Division of Chemistry (CHE) in either July or November. However, beginning in 2012, Chemistry programs will accept unsolicited proposals in either September or October only. PIs may submit to the following programs in September: Chemical Catalysis—CAT; Chemical Structure, Dynamics & Mechanisms—CSDM; Chemical Theory, Models & Computational Methods—CTMC; and Chemical Synthesis—SYN. Or they may submit to the following programs in October: Chemical Measurement & Imaging—CMI; Chemistry of Life Processes—CLP; Environmental Chemical Sciences—ECS; and Macromolecular, Supramolecular & Nanochemistry—MSN. CRIF, CAREER, REU, MRI, and the Centers for Chemical Innovation programs are not affected by this change. PIs should continue to visit www.nsf.gov/div/index.jsp?div=CHE for the deadlines of these and other programs.
Why September or October? The answer is that this change will bring the proposal life cycle into alignment with the federal budget cycle. Funds allocated to federal agencies must be expended in the same fiscal year. A fiscal year begins on Oct. 1 and ends the following Sept. 30. The division cannot underspend its allotment and bank it for use in the following fiscal year. In practical terms, this means a program director must complete his or her work by July 31 to expend the funds allocated for that fiscal year. Regardless of whether a PI submitted an unsolicited proposal in July or November, the subsequent July might well be the decision month on a particular proposal.
In the present system, some PIs who submit in July must wait nearly an entire year before they learn the fate of their proposal. This is simply unacceptable. Under the changes we are initiating, the final funding decisions on unsolicited single-investigator proposals will still be made in July, but PIs who are declined in July will have eight to 12 weeks to study their reviews, revise, and resubmit accordingly. This change will also help mitigate reviewer burnout caused by proposal pressure.
Between fiscal years 1994 and 2011, the number of proposals received by the division nearly doubled. This large increase in proposal pressure has translated into a dramatic increase in workload on the reviewer community. Furthermore, during this period the division budget did not increase at a similar rate and resulted in the funding rate tumbling from 45% to 23%. To prevent the funding rate from dropping into the teens, the division chose to increase the average grant size at a rate that was significantly less than inflation, resulting in the purchasing power of the average award in 2011 being 7.4% less than it was in 1994.
Thus, CHE discourages the submission of more than one proposal from the same principal investigator during the proposal submission window. Note that proposals that are a duplicate of, or substantially similar to, a proposal already under consideration by NSF from the same submitter are subject to return without review. This also applies to proposals that were previously reviewed and declined and have not been substantially revised, as well as to duplicates of other proposals that were already awarded.
I am very proud of the review process and of our community-based recommendation process. I anticipate that the move to one window will maintain the integrity of the system by reducing proposal pressure and proposer and reviewer workload. PIs will know they can expect to hear from us by July 31. Hopefully, this will improve award rates as well. Divisional staff will continue to have all of the budgetary information and reviewer responses necessary to make thoughtful final funding recommendations in a fiscal year.
I would be very happy to further explain the move to one window or any other aspects of division business at your faculty meeting. Please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you wish us to attend via Skype, EVO, or Videocon.
By Matthew S. Platz Director, Division of Chemistry National Science Foundation Arlington, Va.