NSF changes proposal process as congressional budget battle looms

Rebecca Lawhorne/ Sun Star Reporter
March 6, 2012

National Science Foundation Assistant Director John Wingfield visited West Ridge to speak with graduate students and professors about recent updates to the agency and its biology programs. Wingfield offered a detailed Power Point presentation, followed by an open-ended Q-and-A session, which sputtered to a stop after only two questions.

The NSF recently decided to change the way grant proposals are submitted. The controversial decision was the most talked-about subject during the visit. The upgrade, according to Wingfield, will make the grueling process flow more smoothly.

The new system will include submitting preliminary proposals first. If the preliminary proposal is approved, known to NSF as either an “invite” or an “encouragement” depending on the grant, those requesting the investment could submit a full grant proposal. Wingfield described the new structure as a solution to a system on the verge of imploding. “We had to do something,” said Wingfield, who is also an environmental endocrinologist, “Bear with us.”

The NSF is an independent federal agency, with a 2012 budget of $7 billion and a requested 2013 budget of $7.4 billion. The NSF is the source of funding for approximately 20 percent of all federally-supported research colleges and universities in America, according to the agency’s website. Fields such as mathematics, computer science and social science are some of the NSF’s cash cows.

Wingfield’s visit to UAF, which has been in the works for roughly six months, comes not long after his trip to Washington with fellow directors of the agency. The agency visited Washington to propose the NSF budget and work with members of Congress on the proposal.
The Office of Management and Budget asked Wingfield whether a five percent increase in budget was necessary in a time of budget crisis. One board member asked how the agency would defend such a request to the average taxpayers, Wingfield said. Other “straight-forward” questions included the use of fossil fuels and energy concerns, he said. Members of the NSF stressed to Congress the importance of new research.

The NSF assistant director opened up after the presentation while sitting at a conference table with thirteen of the biology department’s graduate students. The group snacked on pizza and sipped soda while students asked Wingfield questions. Wingfield discussed the inner workings of the agency’s recent trip to Congress, detailing their conversations with the OMB and entertaining the group with humorous tales of the trip. Questions from the students focused mostly on grants and the struggle to store the vast amounts of data online collected through years of research.

Wingfield stressed his role within the agency. “It’s my job to make sure biology is represented on all levels,” he said.

He’s worried about administrators with no biology degree making decisions to destroy online data.

“It scares me,” he said.

They received more than 3,500 pre-proposals already, Wingfield said, and they wish they could fund all of the projects. They try to select those who are in the greatest need, with less money or less opportunity.

Wingfield also opened up about the “firestorm of protest” that accompanied the new change in procedure. Wingfield is visiting communities and campuses around the U.S. to connect with graduate students and instructors on a more intimate level to discuss the changes.

BGSA president and graduate student Garrett Savory thought the discussion went well, he said.

“Talking one-on-one with someone like that is a little bit easier for grad students because asking questions in front of everyone after the presentation can be a little intimidating,” Savory said. The discussion gave a much better understanding and appreciation for the process, he said. 

“I think when a project gets turned down, we’ll have more of an understanding of why,” he said.

It also shows the students that they aren’t the only ones with money issues. “At the end of the day, I think NSF is fighting for science,” Savory said.

Scientists face obstacles on all levels when applying for funds to match their growing research requests. The NSF cannot lobby Congress, Wingfield said.

“We cannot ask the community to lobby, we can only stress that there is a need,” Wingfield said.

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