Monday, June 23, 2008

Whispers from the NSF frontlines

After a more light-hearted post about ISI rankings, it's time to return to more serious topics: NSF.

The deadlines for many...if not all...of the ecology and evolution-related panels at NSF are looming and we have hit that time when those of us preparing to storm the castle are getting feedback from those that the castle repulsed. The funding "no"s are trickling out now from the last round at NSF and some of the feedback on why certain proposals have been turned down is...interesting.

Colleagues on at least two different proposals that went to at least two very different panels have now spoken to at least two different program officers. Their proposals were ranked with "excellent"s and given "funding recommended" stamps of approval by their panels. They were turned down because the PIs already had money and/or tenure. In other words, untenured people who did not have money were apparently being given priority. (I should note that this does not mean that they were the only ones being given funding).

I want stop here and make it crystal clear that I am NOT ranting about NSF (though I understand this would be a funnier posting if I was). When funding rates hit 8% (or lower, which I suspect happened on this last round), program officers have to make some tough choices. I may have my opinions on their recent decisions, but all I know with any certainty or clarity is that I REALLY do not envy them right now. So, what might this new, unofficial policy mean? Well, if the whispers are true, then this means that NSF has stepped in to prevent the kind of decimation of the assistant professor ranks that was prophesied over at the DrugMonkey blog. I voiced my skepticism at that site that such mass non-tenurings were feasible for universities, though I was also accused of living under a rock for having said opinions. I will qualify my previous stance on this to say that a) mass firings in the medical sciences may more common (I'm not in the medical sciences and I'm happy to assume that the people over at DrugMonkey understand their field better than I do) and b) I should add that I agree increased non-tenurings over the short-term (next 1-2 years) might happen but that over the longer-term, would not be sustainable for most universities. When I'm in one of my cynical but amused moods, I'll play out what I think would happen to the State University of the Short-Sighted if they implemented the mass-firings policy over the long-term.

I'm still digesting what the new filter at NSF might mean for individual researchers and also broader impacts on collaborative research (what happens if the lead PI has money but the co-PIs don't or vice versa), university practices (do people now have problems being promoted to full, and do I even care about that?), and a host of other things. Whether in the long-term I agree with what NSF is doing (which hopefully will only have to happen for the short-term), I at least find it comforting that someone in a position of power (i.e., not me) is thinking about these things too!

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