Sunday, April 17, 2016

Lack of deadlines is deadly for researchers

In recent years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, has struggled with the logistics of evaluating a rising number of grant proposals that has propelled funding rates to historic lows. Annual or semiannual grant deadlines lead to enormous spikes in submissions, which in turn cause headaches for the program managers who have to organize merit review panels. Now, one piece of the agency has found a potentially powerful new tool to flatten the spikes and cut the number of proposals: It can simply eliminate deadlines.

This week, at an NSF geosciences advisory committee meeting, Assistant Director for Geosciences Roger Wakimoto revealed the preliminary results from a pilot program that got rid of grant proposal deadlines in favor of an anytime submission. The numbers were staggering. Across four grant programs, proposals dropped by 59% after deadlines were eliminated. ...

The no deadline idea began several years ago with a small grant program for instruments and facilities within the earth sciences division of the geosciences directorate. After making the switch in 2011, the program saw a more than 50% drop in proposals—and that number has stayed down ever since.

But many people doubted that NSF would see the same effect if officials dropped deadlines for one [of] its regular science grant programs, says Alex Isern, the head of the surface Earth processes section. So she decided to test it out. She eliminated the twice-a-year deadlines for four of her grant programs, in geobiology and low-temperature geochemistry, geomorphology and land-use dynamics, hydrological sciences, and sedimentary geology and paleobiology. NSF sent out a notice about the change at the beginning of 2015, and after a 3-month proposal hiatus, the no-deadline approach began in April 2015. The number of proposals plummeted, from 804 in 2014 to just 327 in the 11 months from April 2015 to March. ...

Feedback from scientists has been good so far, Isern adds. In a field where many scientists do field work, having no deadline makes it easier for collaborators to schedule time when they can work on a proposal. “I think they like the flexibility,” she says. “They’re able to be more thoughtful about it.” However, one scientist told Isern that he was very busy and couldn’t function without a deadline. Her response? “I’ve actually given you 365 deadlines.”