Owing to the apparent youth of much of the academic segment of the blogosphere, it is not difficult to find posts by assistant professors describing their activities and thoughts during various stages of preparation of CAREER proposals, and their elation/dejection upon receiving news of NSF's decision.
My own CAREER grant expired long (long) ago, and now my primary experience with the CAREER program is as a reviewer of proposals and as an occasional mentor (in real life) to colleagues who are preparing their own such proposals.
Fellow reviewers of CAREER proposals (or whatever equivalent there might be in the NIH university): let's discuss how we go about reviewing these things.
If you have reviewed one or more CAREER proposals, do you:
1. Ignore the fact that these proposals are a bit different from regular NSF proposals, even though you know better, and review them much as you would any proposal (perhaps accounting somewhat for the relative career youth of the PI). That is, do you mostly ignore all the extra educational components of the proposal and focus on the Science?
2. Pay some attention to the education and/or outreach plan, but focus mostly on the Science?
3. Give serious (perhaps equal) thought to the plan for educational/outreach activities, provide detailed comments on these in your review, and factor in your opinion of these in your overall rating of the proposal?
From what I've seen through various intersections with the CAREER program over the years, different fields have different philosophies about these grants and how important they are. I think everyone agrees that it is a good thing to get these grants, owing in part to their being of longer duration (up to 5 years) than a typical grant (2-3 years). There seem, however, to be differences in practice about when to submit the proposal, e.g.:
The CAREER grant can/should be the first grant obtained by an assistant professor, and therefore should be applied for early, even if the individual has no previous grant track record,
A CAREER proposal should be submitted after there is some grant track record, even if after only one other NSF grant.
And I have heard rumors of fields or subfields in which a CAREER grant is essential for tenure at some institutions, but I have not seen evidence that these rumors apply to anyone I know or to any department at my university as long as there is otherwise a solid record of funding.
When I review a CAREER proposal, I certainly look at the required education/outreach parts and I like to see a sincere effort with this part of the proposal, but I must admit that I think it is asking a bit much of assistant professors to have a particularly sophisticated plan. It's great when someone really does have a creative and detailed plan, but, as long as there seems to have been a sincere effort with this part of the proposal, I don't penalize PIs whose broader impacts aren't awesome. That doesn't mean I don't value education or outreach; it just means that I think we have to be reasonable about expectations for already overburdened early-career faculty at research universities.
So, I guess I'm mostly a #2 in the list above, with the caveat that the education/outreach plan has to have some substance to it. After all, that is part of what distinguishes this grant from others, and partly what justifies the longer duration.
Another issue arises when reviewing CAREER proposals from faculty at different types of institutions. This is a general issue when reviewing proposals from, say, faculty at research universities vs. faculty at small liberal arts colleges, but it's a particular issue for CAREER proposals because the education activities might be more of an expected and valued part of the job for some faculty than for others. I actually don't think it's a major big-deal issue because we routinely deal with these types of differences n reviewing proposals, but perhaps someone disagrees with that opinion?
So, how do you review CAREER proposals?
6 months ago