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Dear PI's who wrote the NSF proposals I am now reviewing...
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REPOST: How Many Papers for Tenure?
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I'm a molecular biophysicist in a biochemistry department. In a college of medicine. And I'm funded by the NSF. Not too sure my dean likes that... I'm here to blather on about things that interest me and to raise the average age of the bloggers here by at least 1.2567 years. And I'm Australian.

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This (long) page holds the text from a series of four posts I wrote on my old Blogger blog. These outlined my thoughts on obtaining funding from the NSF. I have since gained more experience with the NSF, having sat more more panels, reviewed more proposals, renewed my REU Site grant and landed a Major Research Infrastructure (equipment) grant.

Note that these are my opinions and that your mileage may vary.


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

Originally posted at on Monday, December 01, 2008

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.


II. So you want a piece of the NSF pie? Scope and budget.

Originally posted at on Wednesday, December 03, 2008.

Herein I continue my somewhat disorganized discussion of NSF funding...

Okay, so now you've had a chance to study NSF's award statistics, it's time to think about the scope of an NSF proposal. Let's face it, a five year, four/five specific aim proposal probably isn't going to fly. Most proposals funded by the NSF appear to be for around three years and have a modest budget. Poke around here to see what the NSF has funded in your area recently to get a better idea of what you're dealing with.

The budget is all important here - it will define the scope of what you propose to do. Remember, those median annual award sizes are totals - direct plus indirect costs. Obviously if you are at an institution with a high F&A rate (say 90%), you're going to be able to ask for more than the median amounts. But don't get greedy - the NSF has limited funds. If your F&A rate is more modest (say around 50%), think in terms of the median amount. Figure out what the median direct rate would be - that's roughly what you'll have to work with (in practice, if you're funded, you're likely to take a modest budget cut, but don't worry about that too much). Let's say you're applying to the BIO directorate, MCB organization, Molecular Biophysics section (one of the more generous sections and the one I'm funded through), and have a F&A rate of 50%. The median direct costs (using the 2007 median annual award) are then:

Directs = $159,113/1.5 = $106,075

Basically $100k/year for three (maybe four) years in this example (remember - your mileage will vary). So the important question becomes what can you do with that? The answer will define the scope of your proposal.

What you can do with that amount of money is highly dependent upon the kind of work you do and the type of position you have. I'm in a college of medicine where each PI pays the stipend and benefits (but not tuition - yet) of their graduate students (no TA's). I might just be able to pay two students based on an award of $100/k per year if I'm very, very careful (i.e. miserly). Or one postdoc and part of a tech's salary. Etc. These considerations clearly limit the scope of what I can propose to do with an NSF grant. In the end I've found two specific aims are about all I can manage. If you're in a setting where TAships for grad students are plentiful, perhaps you can manage more.

Something to keep in mind while we're on the topic of the budget. The NSF will only allow you to pay two months of your salary per year from all sources of NSF funds you have access to. Recently there was a discussion at DrugMonkey's place about this. Let's take me as an example. I'm PI on an NSF research grant and on an NSF REU Site grant. If I get 0.5 months salary from the REU grant I can only take 1.5 months salary from the research grant. NSF doesn't appear to care how much of your salary comes from grants from other agencies.

One last thing while I'm thinking about it. Should you get an NSF award (congrats!), there are two types of research grant; Standard and Continuing. You have no say in which one you get. If you're awarded a Standard grant you're given all the money up front. If you get a Continuing grant you get one year's money at a time. Each new year is contingent on an annual report you have to submit (you have to put these in with Standard grants too). I've always had a Continuing grant and have never had an issue with obtaining the next year's money (I am quite diligent about putting in the required report). I've also never heard of anyone not getting their next year's money, but I suppose it's a possibility.


III. So you want a piece of the NSF pie? Broader Impacts.

Originally posted at on Friday, December 05, 2008.

The dreaded Broader Impacts... This is the place many of the proposals I've reviewed have significant weaknesses. It used to be you could just pay lip service to these. Half a page max at the end of the proposal would be plenty. Not anymore. The NSF has instructed its reviewers to take these very seriously. And I can assure you the Program Officers take them very, very seriously. So when you write a proposal destined for the NSF, you need to take the broader impacts very seriously.

Let's start with why NSF requires broader impacts - understanding this can help formulate some for your proposal. It is important to understand that the NSF will not give you a grant just to do research. Read their mission statement:

To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; to secure the national defense (NSF Act of 1950).

Note that it's promote the progress of science. That's much more than just funding research. The NSF's mission includes science education and training, and dissemination of scientific knowledge to the broader population. That's where the broader impacts criteria come from.

So what are broader impacts? The place to start is with the NSF Grant Proposal Guide. Find the section on review criteria and specifically that part dealing with the broader impacts. As you will see these are split into two categories:

Integration of Research and Education
Integrating Diversity into NSF Programs, Projects, and Activities

Basically it comes down to how you're going to tie education and training into your research activities and how you're going to go about improving diversity within science. The NSF has kindly put together a crib sheet describing how you might address these. It can be downloaded via at (for some reason I can't get Blogger to publish this as a link...). These are just suggestions and nobody in their right mind would propose to tackle all of them. Pick and choose those that work for your circumstances. Be creative and come up with new ones.

Here are some of my thoughts on how to address the broader impacts.

Integration of research and education:

This is the easier of the two criteria to deal with. It's important to understand here that "education" includes training, teaching and dissemination.

Training- In your proposal you want to talk about how you're going to involve trainees in your research. Trainees can include undergrads, grad students and postdocs. You could just say they will be involved, but it's much better to provide specific examples of how they will be involved. For example, what pieces of your project would be suitable fodder for undergrad researchers? Some verbiage describing how your trainees will be trained can also help.

Involving undergrads (and possibly high school students) is a very good thing to do (at least in NSF's view). And can be very rewarding for the PI as well. If you can, write an undergrad or two into each budget year. And specifically state that you will actively encourage even more undergrads to join your lab and that you will apply for REU supplements to support them (read up on these - it's easy money and really looks good when you go to renew your NSF grant). And don't forget to tout all the great work you've done with undergrads in the past.

Teaching- You can keep this as simple as stating that you will integrate the results of your research into your teaching (about the minimum in terms of addressing this, and really all I do), through to getting involved in teaching at K-12 schools. Another possibility is to host high school science teachers over the summer. The NSF has a whole program devoted to funding this kind of thing.

Dissemination- It's a given that you're going to publish and present your data at meetings etc. The difference here is that you need to explicitly state that. And describe how your trainees are going to be disseminating as well. Don't forget to budget funds for these activities, including funds to send trainees to meetings. It's important to back these things up with a real commitment - money.

If you have other opportunities to disseminate the results of your research (e.g. you've been invited to write a review or book chapter), talk about those. The book I recently edited is broader impact/dissemination fodder I count tout. Are you depositing stuff in publically-accessible databases? That's more dissemination stuff.


You can address this separately from the above, or integrated within it. Either works.

What the NSF wants here is some description of how you are going to try to involve people from traditionally under-represented (in science) groups in your research program. I've always found this the most difficult to address. You want to write something that you actually have a chance to succeeding at. If you read the NSF Broader Impacts crib sheet ( you can get some reasonable ideas. Collaborations with PI's who are, or who work with under-represented people count. As do collaborations with faculty at four-year colleges. The ultimate is to have members of under-represented groups working in your lab.

If you have any kind of track record of doing any of this, tout it loudly and clearly.

One last word of advice. Addressing the broader impacts sufficiently is going to require valuable real estate in your 15 page proposal. I don't know how much would be considered too much, but I can tell you less than a page will likely doom your grant. In my last two NSF proposals (both renewals, one that was funded in 2004 and one that has just been recommended for funding) I used at about two pages (not counting the space used to describe the broader impact work done with the prior period of funding).


IV. So you want a piece of the NSF pie? Some thoughts.

Originally posted at on Monday, December 08, 2008.

Some random thoughts to wrap up this series.

1) The review process-

The NSF review process is very different to that of the NIH. I gather the different Directorates, and even organizations within Directorates, have some leeway in deciding how the review process works. What I'm about to describe is the process my own proposals go through at the BIO Directorate. Your mileage may vary.

Review is basically a two-stage process. First your proposal is sent out to a bunch (at least two, sometimes up to six or seven) ad hoc reviewers, plus at least two members of the review panel. These reviewers send in their reviews via Fastlane. The second step is the review panel. The panel considers all of the reviews (as many as eight or even nine), discusses the proposal and assigns a rank (not a score). The Program Director then takes the rankings and figures out what she can fund.

So you get a bunch of reviews. This is good and bad. On the plus side, you can survive a mediocre review if all the others are stellar. You also get a lot of (hopefully) useful feedback. On the minus side, if one of the panel members who reviewed your grant really didn't like it, your odds of being funded are not great even if all the ad hoc reviewers loved your proposal. As with NIH study sections, you need an advocate on the review panel.

2) Proposal rankings-

As I noted above, reviewers don't score NSF proposals per se. They give them a ranking. The reviewers assign a rank of Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair or Poor (from memory). The review panel takes those and assigns an aggregate rank of Outstanding, Highly Meritorious, Meritorious, or Non-Competitive. The last two categories won't be funded. Sadly, it is often the case that not all of the proposals ranked as Outstanding can be funded...


Okay, the following stuff is purely anecdotal - you've been warned. I'm posting it because I've heard the same things from multiple people (n > 6), leading me to think there might just be a grain of truth in each of these...

3) NSF doesn't want young people to fail-

NSF Program Directors have a lot of say over who gets funded and who doesn't. Clearly they can't over-ride the reviewers to much or too many times otherwise they would have a very hard time finding people willing to review proposals. But they can nudge proposals over the funding line if they feel it's warranted. What I have heard from multiple people is that Program Directors will sometimes do this in order to fund an otherwise unfunded young investigator on the verge of their tenure decision. Of course said investigator needs to have been productive enough to warrant this.

This is not something I would bet any money on. Or my tenure. It's obviously best to not to have to rely upon the largesse of a Program Director.

4) Once you're in you're golden-

By that I mean once you're funded by the NSF, as long as you're productive, your Program Director will try to ensure you maintain the ability to be productive. I am by no means suggesting that the Program Director will fund your proposals over higher scoring proposals. Rather that if you're on the funding edge and it's a choice between you as a previously NSF-funded, productive PI and someone else, you will get the nod (remember - this is anecdotal stuff).

I have brought this up hesitantly because it sounds like a mechanism for maintaining the status quo. I would like to think that's not the intent, rather that it's more a matter of Program Directors being loyal to their productive charges. Can it have the side effect of maintaining the status quo? Yes. The someone else is likely a new investigator... Please note that a) THIS IS ANECDOTAL, b) this is somewhat at odds with the previous anecdotal point in this post, and c) I'm not defending this.