NSF no-dup policy/a proposal

Chris.Somerville 21847CRS at MSU.EDU
Thu May 21 22:13:00 EST 1992

Since my reaction to the NSF no-duplication policy issue raised by
Mark Estelle was much less negative than the other opinions
expressed, I thought it might be worthwhile to try and take the
other side of the issue. Here is how I think the issue breaks down
and what we should do as a community:

      The main negative aspect of the new policy is that we would
all prefer to have multiple chances to have our proposals reviewed
by different panels. Many people have had the experience that
something declined by one agency is funded by another. Furthermore,
I am familiar with many cases in which something declined by NSF
was funded by NIH or USDA, so it is not at all a matter of NSF
being a safety net. This is a very bothersome aspect of the process
and leads to the conclusion that the system is capricious.  I also
think it will be a problem if, as a result of the new policy, the
number of submissions declines and this in turn leads to a decline
in the funds allocated to the BIO programs (i.e., I think there is
a relationship between the amount of funds for a program and the
number of proposals submitted).
   Unfortunately, aside from instituting a system of "second
review" within NSF, there is no obvious way to directly replace the
lost opportunity for a second chance. However, I believe that by
awarding 5 year grants, NSF could partially offset the problems
associated with the loss of the opportunity for duplicate review -
that is, since our only recourse to a declined proposal would be to
resubmit, the system should provide more reasonable duration of
funding once a proposal survives the gauntlet.  Furthermore, there
must also be at least three opportunities per year to resubmit and
the reviews must be completed within three months so that we have
one month to restructure the proposal for resubmission if
necessary.  This would effectively provide for "second review"
(with a 4 month lag), and the longer duration would probably offset
the nasty effects of those instances where a deserving proposal is
not funded.

The only directly positive aspect to the policy seems to be that we
should expect a much needed decline in the amount of reviewing that
we are engaged in - particularly if we could move toward five year
grants.  A reduced load may lead to more perceptive reviews which
could, by itself, take some of the capriciousness out of the

I believe that the indirect effects could be very positive - in
other words, I believe the change could lead to significantly more
funding for basic plant biology in particular.  The reason is that
because some of the BIO programs at NSF have 85% duplicate
proposals, it can be readily understood that congressional
committees who only look at summary numbers do not see that BIO is
doing anything unique and, therefore, does not see why it should be
supported.  It has been suggested that congress can be enticed by
simply showing them all the wonderful science that was done by BIO
funding. However, it can be argued that if BIO were abolished, this
same work would be supported by NIH, USDA, or DOE. Indeed, I
personally know scientists who have made this argument to the
government, and who have endorsed abolishing BIO and turning NSF
into an engineering agency.  Within NSF, BIO is currently only
about 15% of the budget. My impression is that this will not
increase, and might actually decrease, if the community does not
consider the NSF BIO program as vital and unique.
    Therefore, I think that we should give some thought to how NSF
BIO could be "modified" in such a way that it would provide a
unique service to our community.  In view of the fact that Mary
Clutter is an active participant in this newsgroup, we have a
unique opportunity to have a dialog with NSF about these issues.
      I think it is also woth pointing out that those of us who
work with Arabidopsis already have some direct experience of NSF in
the posture of assuming a "defining role".  At a time when USDA was
reluctant to mention "the A word" (has that changed?), and when NIH
had pointedly excluded Arabidopsis from the list of model organisms
that were eligible for support under the human genome initiative,
NSF recognized the importance of the Arabidopsis phenomenon and
actively stimulated discussion among Arabidopsis workers about the
needs of the community. This newsgroup, the resource center, the
creation of the multinational steering committee and the allocation
of significant funding for support of Arabidopsis reasearch are all
tangible evidence of an agency that is listening to the community
of basic plant biologists.  If, as I believe, this is the kind of
activity that is seen as "providing a clearly defined and unique
role for NSF", then I am for it.
      In conclusion, I suggest that one of the things we need to do
as a community in order to strengthen NSF is to clearly define the
areas or aspects of our discipline that are not addressed by
programs at the other agencies.  Another thing we need to do, is to
define the conditions under which we can live with the no dup
policy (as I tried to do above).  Finally, we need to respond in a
somewhat organized fashion - I think it is great to have this
discussion on the newsgroup but in the end we need to find a
mechanism that is not just random shots from those of us with
typing skills.  Therefore, I suggest that the Arabidopsis Steering
committee draft a position paper on this issue and submit it to the
community for comment before transmitting it to NSF.  As a first
step in this process, it would be most useful to hear additional
comments from the community.  I think these should be posted on the
newsgroup so that we can discern the dimensions of the debate, if
it exits.

Chris Somerville

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