Monday, April 11, 2011

From Proposal To Grant

In the good old days, this was a typical scenario for NSF grants, indicated by time (t) in months:

t = 0: proposal submitted on or before the proposal deadline. (I was just trying to remember if I have ever submitted a proposal before a deadline, and I don't think I have.)

t = 3.5-4: panel met, discussed mail reviews, ranked proposals

t = 4-4.5: program directors made decisions. Those PIs who were definitely funded and those who were definitely not funded got the news right away; those who might be funded waited a bit longer.

t = 5-6: proposals recommended for funding worked their way up through the system, but it didn't take long to get the final award letter and for the funds to be transferred to the university and for the university to assign the grant an ID number, making the grant active.

Back in those glorious days of yore, when filling in the cover page, I would indicate a preferred start date 6 months after the proposal due date, and this was quite reasonable. A new grant was typically good to go after t = 6 from time of proposal submission.

This was an excellent system because you knew that if your grant was funded, you could start paying a graduate student RA in the next academic term. This was very useful for making a quick start with the research, for trying to optimize correspondence of graduate students and grants, and for research planning in general (e.g., if you get/don't get a grant, this affects your plans for the next proposal deadline).

Now the system seems to be more like this:

t = 0: proposal submitted on or before the proposal deadline.

t = 3.5-4: panel meets, discusses mail reviews, ranks proposals

t = 4-8+: program director makes decisions, contacts PIs

t = 6-10+: proposals recommended for funding work their way up through the system, and eventually result in the formal award letter, which will be followed at some point by transfer of funds to the university.

And then.. there is another wait to get the university to assign a magic number to the grant so that it can be used. This delay is beyond the control of NSF, but it is one more delay on top of the other delays, making for a considerable gap in time from proposal submission to effective grant start date. I specify effective grant start date because now the start date indicated by NSF may be a couple of months before the university completes its paper work and recognizes the grant in its grants management system. The grant may technically exist for a while before the PI can use it.

It is sometimes possible to start using a grant that has been promised but that hasn't quite worked its way through the system to the final stage yet, but to do this you have to have a slush fund (not another NSF grant) as back-up.

Why has this all become more complicated and slow? Is it because budgets have been slashed and there are fewer staff handling more responsibilities? I have a hypothesis, but it actually involves the opposite of this explanation.

I know that there are all sorts of considerations involving oversight of every step of the system and oversight of the overseers and so on and this all takes time to make sure no one is doing anything unethical or illegal of unwise, but I wish we could go back to the 6 month proposal-to-grant time gap. Gaps that are considerably longer than that seriously interfere with a PI's ability to assemble an excellent research team and do exciting research in a timely way.

I am of course happy to get grants at all, so it might seem ungrateful to complain about a delay of a few months, but I have found that the delay has rather significantly affected my research program.


Anonymous said...

Latest NSF grant, from submission to award to my University: 8.0 months. This proposal was not in the gray area; it was recommended for funding in full shortly after the panel meeting.

Over one month has past now and the grant is still unavailable for use (no budget number).

NSF moved the starting date by 2.5 months, which means I cannot support my graduate student on the time frame that was proposed and was reasonable for this work. I am happy to be funded, but these delays seem largely unjustified and in many cases hurt the research.

Anonymous said...

As a new faculty member who is anxiously awaiting news of my first submitted NSF proposal, what should we expect for the nebulous waiting time between months 4 and 8? Should we sit patiently and expect that we'll receive an email when decisions have been made? Should we contact someone after a certain amount of time has passed to inquire on our proposal's status? I have no idea what to expect here, and so I don't know what the etiquette should be in this situation.

Anonymous said...

My last two NSF grants took 11 and 12 months to "start." A one month delay was caused by a co-PI that hadn't submitted an annual report (that wasn't even late yet, but it still had to be in before new money could be released). I am not sure how much of a delay is being caused by my university, but I can believe they are part of the problem. I think part of the delay is ARRA. Although my funds were not ARRA, NSF program managers were funding a lot more things in a short time. They were certainly working hard.

As long as those grants took to arrive, at least I could trust NSF to do what they said they would do. Contrast that with my experiences with NASA and DoD. NASA once took two years to send money to me. By the time it arrived, I wasn't even interested in the problem anymore. For a subsequent review, the program manager took 18 months to make a decision, and then sent the rejection letter by Federal Express! DoD once gave me a three year grant, and never sent the third year of money. I was honestly perplexed. It never occurred to me that someone would cut you off if you were doing good work. My colleagues tell me this is very common at DoD - but my program manager should have warned me. So as much as you can wish NSF were doing a better job, be grateful you aren't dependent on DoD or NASA. There it is ALL about being in the club. At least at NSF it's about doing good science.

GMP said...

I second the sentiment of Anon at 10:04. At least with the NSF you know it's coming. I have had really weird start delays with some of the DOD agencies, and they would send these teeny-tiny increments instead of the full annual sums, and then each increment was months late so I would constantly have small gaps in funding (as the previous increment end date has passed and I could not charge anything to it any more, and the new increment didn't arrive yet). Multiple times on the same grant I had to do a no-cost-extensions just to bridge it to the next small increment. It was crazy.

I am currently in the grey zone with an NSF grant, hoping for a positive outcome, and it's been a bit over 6 months. The budget battle on the Capitol Hill is not helping. The funding rat race is overall so frustrating that as long as the funding comes, I will be happy; we have developed remarkable adaptive mechanisms to bridge months of student support (e.g. squeezing out every penny out of every grant, no matter how tiny) and I see that people are overall very conservative about taking on new students. I feel bad for the incoming grad student crop -- getting a funding commitment from an advisor will be very hard in the near future.

Anonymous said...

This is pretty program-specific. In my NSF Division, we were on the second (less than ideal) schedule for a few years, and this year we are on the first (ideal) schedule. I was notified in 4 months, to my amazement. Unfortunately it was negative, and given the current federal budget gridlock, I suspect the lucky may not yet have been notified, but I was still happy to have gotten the news quickly, for once. We have a new Division Director, which I suspect is not a coincidence.

I am also blessed that the administration at my R1 university processes successful grants within days. If it's well before the proposed start date, we can request an advance.

mathgirl said...

My wait with NSERC was more like 6 months, with some additional 2 months for the magic university number.

Then I moved to a different university in Canada and the grant was moved with me. It took nearly 4 months for the grant to move and get the magic number at the new university!

Anonymous said...

anonymous 8:41, I think it's OK to send a courteous email to your program officer asking for info on when you will hear back, esp bc if it wasn't funded you will need feedback and some time for a resubmission. They are usually helpful to junior faculty.
Years ago I was waiting to hear about my Career award, and I sent a similar email to my PO. He answered that a decision had been made, and that he would let me know shortly. It was the most stressful week of my (professional) life, of course I thought it was a no. Finally I got an email on a sunday morning. To my amazement I had been funded.
It was great but my spouse was ready to kill the guy ;-)

Female Science Professor said...

Somewhere deep in the archives is a discussion of the question of when/whether to contact a program director to try to get news of a grant. As long as you aren't pestering an NSF program director for news the day after the panel meeting, I think it is fine to send a brief and polite query to find out some news or at least the likely time frame for news. I don't know if it hastens a decision or not, but if you think knowing something (even if that something is nothing) will help your planning and/or sanity, go ahead.

Anonymous said...

Rejected grants sometimes take even longer. I've had to wait 14 months sometimes to be told that a "pending" grant was not going to be funded. This makes revision and resubmission very difficult.

NIH seems to be slower than NSF, both have ridiculously long bureaucratic delays. It should be 1-2 months from deadline to panel decision, another 1 month to funding decision, then 3 days to award letter. Max delay from deadline to funds should be 4 months.

Anonymous said...

I have experienced similar delays for my most recent NSF grants. For the latest one, I submitted in July, received positive news via phone call from the Program Officer in early December, but now it's April and I am still awaiting formal award notification. I just interviewed a post-doc candidate to be funded by the grant, not knowing if I am being optimistic or foolish.

EliRabett said...

FWIW if you are polite and don't start screaming down the phone, you can even call the program officer. Taking bad news with grace helps you build a relation with them

Anonymous said...

the delays significantly affect soft-money researchers whose continued employment depend on incoming grants, and for whom a lapse in funding can mean career derailment.

beejaygirl said...

Still waiting word on NSF CAREER. 10 plus months. No awards yet in this division so must be grey zone, right?

Anonymous said...

Over six months for the grant from NSF. Have been told, budget questions have made Program Directors hold on more to the good grants to see if the balance of their portfolio remains good (will wait till next round of applications come in).

Anonymous said...

With every passing year NSF and most federal agencies hire more admins who create more mindless hurdles and procedures that slow down the funding process. They act like they are trying to protect the tax dollars and reign in the scientists. But, the only thing these admins are doing is protecting their own jobs and stifling the productivity of science and the nation.