When preparing an NSF proposal using FastLane, PIs have the following options in terms of giving "access control" to their Sponsored Research Office:
- permission to view the proposal but not submit it (yet)
- permission to view and edit but not submit (yet)
- permission to view, edit, and submit
The view-edit-submit option makes me uncomfortable at the early to intermediate stages of proposal preparation because:
- The proposal might look like it is complete, yet not be in a form that I want submitted to the NSF. PIs are supposed to upload a project description and project summary by a specified internal deadline, a day or 5 before the funding agency deadline, so that the SRO can check the budget, budget justification, font types, font sizes, margins etc. In some (most?) cases, however, the proposal isn't submission-ready by the time of the internal deadline. There might be a support letter missing, for example. The proposal is ready enough for viewing and checking, but not for submitting.
Flexible and nice SRO staff are willing to examine a not-quite-final version of the proposal, as long as the parts they need to see are available, then submit the proposal when everything is assembled, up to and including the day of the proposal deadline. With these particular SRO staff people, I am willing to click the view-edit-submit button at an early stage. But:
A few years ago, I had uploaded some, but not all, components of a proposal before I left for a research-related trip abroad. I had finished and uploaded the budget and other required forms, but the internal deadline was still a week away, and I planned to work more on the project description, summary, and references while traveling. This was >5 years ago, and I was traveling in a part of the world that, at the time, did not have ubiquitous internet access.
After a few days, I went to an internet cafe filled with young men playing violent computer games. In my e-mail inbox I saw something far more terrifying than the virtual explosions and shootings on the monitors around me. I saw an automatically generated e-mail confirming the submission of my proposal. The SRO had submitted my incomplete proposal to the NSF.
In fact, this should not have happened at all because the proposal was so incomplete. The internal deadline had not even passed. Why did the SRO submit the proposal? I called my university in a panic. The SRO staff member who was handling my proposal had submitted it just before leaving on vacation.
I had to withdraw the proposal and reconstruct all the documents, some of which I had foolishly not brought with me because they had been completed and approved before I left. I learned that if you withdraw a proposal, you cannot recover the files on FastLane, and so I had to build the budget all over again with the help of a heroic department accountant (now retired, alas) and co-PI.
That experience traumatized me, and although that SRO staff member did not last much longer in her job, it took me a long time to bring myself to select view-edit-submit as an early option for SRO access. Lately, I have gone back to selecting this option when I know that a particular very competent SRO staff person is handling my proposal.
Just before a recent proposal submission, I learned that this particular person would be out of town during the relevant time frame for proposal submission. I gave the SRO permission to view, but not submit the proposal.
For some reason, my proposal therefore came to the attention of the competent person's superior at the SRO; someone with a long administrative title and no doubt awesome administrative responsibilities.
He sent me a very snippy e-mail saying that because I had not given his office access to submit the proposal early enough, he was going to delay submission of my proposal. He said that, furthermore, because my proposal appeared to have a target date rather than an actual deadline, he saw no reason why I should insist on the proposal's being submitted by a certain date.
By the time he sent that e-mail, his office had access to submit my proposal, in plenty of time before the deadline; I just hadn't selected this option right way. In addition, if he had looked at the cover page and saw what type of proposal it was and/or had looked at an internal document that clarified the issue of the deadline, he would know that I wasn't just being an imperious jerk who selected a random date for a deadline and expected everyone to work according to my schedule. The NSF program director had specified an optimal date, which was now going to be missed owing to the SRO administrator's little hissy fit.
SRO guy also questioned something in my budget -- specifically, an issue related to whether I could justify the amount of student support I was requesting relative to the proposed research.
What?? How does he know how much time it takes to do a particular type of research?
The budget had already been approved by the accounting office, my department chair, and my college's dean. The budget item in question was justified in the proposal -- in the project description and budget justification. The last thing I need is an administrator wondering whether I am asking for too much money for graduate students relative to the amount of work they will be doing. That typically is not a problem.
The overall theme of SRO guy's e-mail was that because I had offended and inconvenienced his office by not giving them immediate access to submit the proposal when I first initiated proposal preparation in FastLane, he was going to punish me in various annoying little ways. He cc'd his e-mail to the dean and my chair and someone else I didn't know.
He did not cc the co-PI, but I did. The co-PI thinks my reply was perhaps even a bit too nice. I did not mention my earlier emotional trauma regarding premature submission of a proposal, but instead just dealt with his points, one by one. My purpose was to appear calm, reasonable, and polite, and to get this proposal submitted as soon as possible.
Now I have two things to worry about:
1 - If I select view-edit-submit right away, my proposal might be submitted prematurely, causing major problems and inconvenience for all concerned. I know this is unlikely to happen again, but unless I know that a trusted SRO staff member is handling my proposal, I feel anxious about it.
2 - If I select view-edit but not submit first, I might offend this snowflake administrator whose feelings are easily hurt and who then punishes me by delaying submission of my proposal and raising spurious questions about the details of the proposal.
Ideally, faculty and administrators work together to optimize proposal submissions. The process involves effort and communication on both parts. Faculty need to follow internal procedures and meet internal deadlines for submitting proposals, but if we do that, we shouldn't have to worry about the delicate feelings of the administrators who have the ultimate power to push the button and submit (or not) our proposals to the funding agencies.