The National Science Foundation (NSF) will no longer require biologists applying for grants to submit preproposals and to adhere to an annual deadline for submissions. The changes pull the plug on a 5-year pilot project in two NSF divisions—and mark the agency’s latest attempt to reduce the burden of the grant review system on its staff and outside researchers without lowering its standards.
In 2012 the divisions of Environmental Biology (DEB) and Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS) within NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences limited scientists to two proposals a year, submitted annually rather than twice a year, and added a four-page preproposal as the first step in the merit review process. The hope was that in addition to easing workloads for NSF staff, the revamped system would improve the quality of the reviews and boost an applicant’s chance of success.
Based in Alexandria, Virginia, NSF is constantly tinkering with its grant review system, which varies across the six research directorates and reflects the culture of a particular scientific community. But workload concerns are a constant. Three years ago, for example, NSF’s astronomy division asked scientists to submit only one proposal a year to ease the burden on program managers, and several programs within the geosciences directorate saw the number of applications drop by half after they eliminated twice-a-year deadlines and allowing rolling submissions.
Last year NSF asked the consulting firm Abt Associates to analyze the impact of the biology directorate’s pilot. Some of the results were clear cut, according to its newly released report. Scientists strongly disliked the annual…