Geography and the National Science Foundation

By Thomas J. Baerwald

The Broader Context: The National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation is a different kind of agency. Wander the corridors of its headquarters in the Ballston area of central Arlington, Virginia, and you'll often hear staff members talk about how NSF differs from "mission agencies." Such terminology makes it seem that NSF has no mission, but that is wrong.NSF has a very distinctive mission, and that distinction makes a much different breed of cat that almost all other federal agencies.

Whereas other agencies have specific, targeted missions - to keep the environment clean in the case of Environmental Protection Agency, to facilitate roadway construction in the case of the Federal Highway Administration, to provide weather, water, and climate forecasts and warnings in the case of the National Weather Service - the National Science Foundation is charged with nourishing and sustaining the nation's fundamental science and engineering enterprise.

The basic charge for NSF was laid out in its founding legislation in 1950: "To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; [and] to secure the national defense." To characterize what it does, NSF uses terminology associated with an investment model.NSF invests money - federal dollars, which totaled roughly $5.5 billion in FY 2004.It also invests the time, knowledge, and skills of its staff and of many thousands of other individuals who write reviews and serve on advisory panels and committees at NSF.

NSF investments result in grants and cooperative agreements that support a diverse set of scientific research and educational activities.Awards range from small, highly focused grants that provide up to $12,000 to support doctoral dissertation research to science and technology center awards that total up to $40 million over a ten-year period.

NSF expects the projects it supports through its awards to yield products in one or more of three categories - people, ideas, and tools.NSF expects its awards to enhance the knowledge and capabilities of people who will form a competitive science and engineering workforce.It expects its projects to yield discoveries and new knowledge across the frontiers of science. And it expects many of the projects to result in new methods, resources, and other forms of science and engineering infrastructure.

The Evaluation of Proposals at NSF

NSF evaluates proposals seeking its funds by using external merit evaluation based on peer review.A single-blind process is used, with reviewers asked to comment on the capabilities of the researchers, among other things, while the identity of reviewers is not disclosed to the investigators who submit the proposal.In addition to individual reviews, advisory panels review and provide a comparative evaluation of all proposals under consideration at a specific time.

Regardless of whether evaluated by individual reviewers or by panels, reviewers are asked to consider two major criteria with respect to all proposals.First, they are asked to assess the intellectual merit of a proposed project.Does it draw on and will it contribute to relevant theories? Is it scientifically sound? Are the investigators capable of conducting the proposed research, and do they have the necessary facilities? Will the proposed research help to advance frontiers of understanding within and across disciplines, or will its impact be relatively narrow?

Reviewers also are asked to assess the broader impacts of a proposed activity.How effectively is the research integrated with education? Will the activity help to broaden the diversity of the science and engineering workforce? Will the research result in databases, methods, tools, or other forms of scientific infrastructure? What is the broader societal significance of the proposed work?

With the funding rates of many NSF competitions being 20 percent or less (meaning that fewer than one in five of all proposals submitted results in an award), the competition for NSF's dollars is extremely intense.Investigators submitting proposals therefore should make the strongest, most persuasive cases possible that their projects will have the greatest possible intellectual merit and the most significant broader impacts.

The Varied Nature of NSF Competitions

Although NSF can support research and related activities proposed by individuals from a broad range of institutions, the vast majority of its awards go to universities.The academic orientation of the agency is reflected in its administrative structure.NSF's primary subdivision, the directorate, is similar to a college within a university.The six research-oriented directorates of NSF serve the biological sciences, computer sciences, engineering, geosciences, physical sciences, and social and behavioral sciences.(A separate directorate focuses on education.) Within the directorates are divisions, and within the divisions are programs that generally focus serving specific disciplinary or topically oriented communities. Nearly every program conducts "unsolicited" competitions one or two times each year, although proposals that relate to the interests of two or more communities can be jointly reviewed by multiple programs.

While the standing programs generally focus on more narrowly defined topics and issues, NSF also conducts a set of broader ranging competitions that involve two or more programs and sometimes the entire foundation.In recent years, for example, NSF has conducted major crosscutting competitions dealing with information technology research, biocomplexity in the environment, human and social dynamics, and nanoscale science and engineering.

Before writing and submitting proposals, investigators should spend time exploring which competitions within NSF are most likely to be receptive to their proposed work.The best initial source of such information is the NSF Guide to Programs.For more information about different programs and special competitions, you can consult the NSF web site. When preparing proposals, investigators should to rigorously follow the guidelines and policies in the NSF Grant Proposal Guide. All proposal submissions must be made online using the FastLane interactive system. First-time investigators should contact the sponsored projects office at their institution to obtain a FastLane user ID and password.

In addition to doing homework to learn about the formal descriptions, guidelines, procedures, and other issues associated with competitions, investigators should feel welcome to contact relevant program officers.Well in advance of a submission deadline, investigators can send a brief e-mail message to the program officers who will be managing the competition to which a proposal might be directed.The message can include a page-or-so description of the project being developed as well as any relevant questions that the investigators have.If the investigators are wondering whether two or more programs (or competitions) might jointly review a proposal, they should send the same inquiry to all relevant program officers at the same time to facilitate communication among NSF staff who might have mutual interest in the proposed work.

Investigators should plan their research well in advance and leave adequate time for the evaluation of their proposals.NSF sets six months as the maximum amount of time that will elapse between a competition deadline and the time when investigators are notified whether their proposal will be funded or declined.A few additional months may be required to complete the work necessary to make an award based on the proposal, so investigators should generally submit their proposals nine months or longer before the date they hope to begin receiving support.Those seeking funding to start with a summer field season, for example, should submit their proposals in the late summer or early fall of the preceding year.

The NSF Geography and Regional Science Program

Investigators engaged in geographic research can seek funding from a variety of sources at NSF.The most likely source of funding may be the Geography and Regional Science (GRS) Program.

Although a standing program within the Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, GRS funds research that extends well beyond behavioral and social topics. In addition to research on human geography, GRS supports research in physical geography, human-environmental interaction, and geographic information science.A large number of proposals considered by GRS (often more than half) are jointly reviewed with one or more other programs, thereby increasing possibilities for support for meritorious projects.

With an annual budget of almost $4.8 million in FY 2004, the average GRS award supported work for about 2.5 years with annual funding (including both direct and indirect costs) of about $80,000.There is a wide range around those averages, however, with some awards providing up to $200,000 annually for as long as five years while others are much smaller and shorter in duration.The percentage of proposals considered by GRS that result in awards now tends to be in the 15 percent to 20 percent range during each semi-annual competition.GRS also makes about two dozen doctoral dissertation research improvement (DDRI) awards annually, with the maximum DDRI award at $12,000.The funding success rate for GRS DDRI proposals usually is around one-third.

The GRS Program does not have predefined topics that are of special interest.Instead, it evaluates proposals submitted by investigators across a diverse range of topics.GRS program directors use the comments or reviewers and advisory panel members to identify projects whose "bang for the buck" is especially significant.The "bang" they are seeking relates to the likelihood that a project will make significant contributions to general knowledge related to geographic theory as well as to its positive impacts.In addition to assessing both the intellectual merit and broader impacts of specific projects, GRS program directors seek to provide support across a broad range of subfields and to leverage GRS funds with contributions from other programs.

GRS has had a long-standing tradition of supporting the development of new methods in geography and related fields in addition to funding basic research on substantive questions.From 1988 through 1999, GRS was the primary source of core support for the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) at the University of California-Santa Barbara, State University of New York-Buffalo, and University of Maine.More recently, GRS has managed major infrastructure awards to support the Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science (CSISS) at Santa Barbara and the National Historical Geographic Information System at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Although some GRS awards have primarily focused on new methodological advances, experience has shown that proposals to advance methods are more successful when they are linked to specific substantive inquiries.A proposal to refine a remote sensing analytic method, for example, will be more likely to receive funding if the refinement of the technique is being made to improve capabilities to answer specific questions that are grounded in a broader theoretical framework.

Other Opportunities to Support Geographers at NSF

While GRS Program funds provide nearly $5 million in support each year, an estimated $10 million more has been awarded annually through special competitions to projects that involve geographers and add to fundamental geographic knowledge.Among the competitions in which geographers have been successful have been the Biocomplexity in the Environment special competition on the Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems and the Human and Social Dynamics competition.Geographers also were successful in competitions that focused on information technology research, including the Digital Government competition.

Because special competitions tend to be conducted for only a limited number of years and topics for which competitions are held change from year to year, investigators should check the NSF web site frequently to see if competitions of interest to them will be conducted.They can also contact NSF program officers when they formulate ideas to obtain feedback regarding the appropriateness of their plans for one or more special competitions. Although GRS program directors will always be happy to try to assist geographers to find appropriate matches for their ideas, it often is more useful to directly contact the individuals listed as the NSF points of contact for specific competitions.A brief e-mail message with a page-or-so description of what the investigator has in mind usually is the most effective medium for such communications.

Published Saturday, January 8th, 2005

Written by Thomas J. Baerwald

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