Tuesday, March 06, 2012

NSF - proposal compliance

This is for everyone out there who submits to proposals to the Division of Materials Research, and more broadly, to the National Science Foundation. Here's some context for those who don't know the story. The NSF has a Grant Proposal Guide that spells out, in detail, the proper content and formatting for proposals. You can understand why they do this, particularly with regard to things like font size. There's a 15 page limit on the "Project Description" part of a proposal, and if they didn't specify a font size and margins, there would be people trying to game the system by submitting proposals in 6-pt unreadable font with 1cm margins. Historically, NSF has erred on the side of latitude about the minutiae, however. For example, they have never really been aggressive about policing whether the bibliographic references are perfectly formatted.

That's why this news came as a surprise: As part of a new policy, starting this past fall, DMR is taking basically a zero-tolerance approach regarding compliance with the Grant Proposal Guide. That means, for example, that any letter of collaboration included with a proposal can only say, in effect, "I agree to do the tasks listed in the Project Description". Anything more (e.g., context about what the collaborator's expertise is, or mentioning that this continues an existing collaboration) is no longer allowed, and would be cause for either deletion of the letter or outright rejection of the proposal without review. This new policy also means, and this is scary, that your references have to be perfectly formatted - leaving out titles, or leaving out the second page number, or using "et al." instead of long author lists - all of these can lead to a proposal being rejected without review. I heard this first hand from a program officer. Imagine spending weeks writing a proposal, and having it get bounced because you used the wrong setting in bibTeX or EndNote.

We can have a vigorous discussion in the comments about whether this policy makes much sense. In the meantime, though, I think it's very important that people be aware of this change. The bottom line: Scrupulously follow the Grant Proposal Guide. Cross every "t" and dot every "i".

Please spread this information - if one division of NSF is doing this, you can bet that it will spread, and you don't want to be the one whose proposal gets bounced.

9 comments:

tevetorbes said...

Shouldn't all scientists be pedants? Should we not be worried about this stuff as much as the science?

For instance, manuscript reviewers typically do a very poor job (or no job at all) of checking references. I constantly find mistakes in references, be they juxtaposing the volume and issue number, or getting a page number or year wrong, or simply referencing something that doesn't say what you said it said. It is EXCRUCIATINGLY annoying to try to look up a reference only to discover that something was wrong with it in the paper.

In all, I think this is a step definitely in the right direction. Perhaps this rigor in reference checking will carry over to manuscript writing and reviewing.

Doug Natelson said...

I'm fine with some level of pedantry, but imagine if you spent 6 weeks writing a proposal for a once-a-year submission deadline, and it got bounced because your bibliography software used single page numbers by default. There is a difference between the substantive and the trivial.

For what it's worth, the idea that collaborative letters should contain no information beyond "I'll do what you wrote elsewhere" is not even spelled out anywhere, as far as I can see.

John said...

Doug,

Where did you get this information. Any references? (PLEASE be sure to format the reference properly or I will hack your site and remove your reply;)

Doug Natelson said...

John, I just experienced having collaboration letters excised because they went beyond the minimum statement. (The argument is that any additional info in the letters is equivalent to fudging the 15 page limit on the project description.) The proposal will still go out for review, at least, just without the letters.

As for the other information, I heard it straight from a program officer (who requested anonymity when I mentioned that I would blog about this to promote dissemination of the information).

your colleague down the hall who wishes to remain anonymous said...

"We are instituting a new policy which will give us cover to reject a certain fraction of the grant applications we receive without review, but I wish to remain anonymous about these changes even though I am officially charged with implementing them, and presumably also with disseminating the fact of their existence." This really bothers me. Maybe more even than the dopey policies themselves.

John said...

Thanks for the info Doug. I'm curious because I have a couple of SBIR submissions and wonder what will happen to them. The 15 pages I always knew and respected (out of respect for the reviewers as well!) but all this other minutia is crazy. Once people figure it out, the reviewers won't be able to use that excuse. It's just a game of cat-and-mouse.

Sambandamurthy Ganapathy said...

thanks for the information, Doug!

this is ridiculous..if a new guideline or a stricter implementation of an existing guideline comes into effect, shouldn't the PIs be informed?

I remember several reminders about the new "Data Management Plan" and "Mentoring Plan" flooding our inboxes a while ago...

Mark Urban-Lurain said...

We had an REU proposal rejected last year because the letter of support from our evaluator contained information about the evaluation. We had copied that information into the 15 page project description, so it WAS included there, but they rejected it without review because the letter of support contained this info. Very disappointing.

Anonymous said...

The REU was actually not reviewed because the PI uploaded the entire evaluator's proposal - this was a bit more than a letter of support containing information.