Serving at NSF panels and what it teaches about how to pitch the perfect proposal

NSF is one of the largest funding sources for academic research.  It accounts for about one-fourth of federal support to academic institutions for basic research. NSF accepts 1000s of proposals from researchers, and organizes peer-review panels to decide which ones to fund.

Serving at NSF panels are fun. They are also very useful to understand the proposal review dynamics. NSF funding rates are around 10% for computer science and engineering research proposals, so understanding the dynamics of the panel is useful for applying NSF to secure some funding.

How do you get invited as a panelist? 

You get invited to serve at an NSF panel by the program director of that panel. (Program directors are researchers generally recruited from the academia to serve at NSF for a couple years to run panels and help make funding decisions.)

If you have been around and have successfully secured NSF funding, you will get panel invitations. They will have your name and contact you. But, if you are new, don't just wait. You can email program managers at NSF at your topic, and ask them to consider inviting you as a panelist, because you will need the experience. This doesn't always work, but it helps. I found this from NSF about volunteering as a reviewer at a panel.

Preparation for a panel: Reading, reading, reading, writing reviews

As a panelist, you will be assigned around 8 proposals to review in 3 weeks. Each proposal body consists of 15 pages. So that means a lot of reading in the next couple weeks. And it can get boring, if you just read idly. You should try to read actively, discuss with the proposal, and write notes  as you read the proposal that will help you prepare your review.

Tips on reading papers also apply somewhat to reading proposals. But proposals have their peculiarities. Proposals need to have nicely motivated vision and clearly defined research problems, but they don't need to have all the solutions worked up. Instead of full-fledged solutions, the proposals provide draft solution approaches and competitive advantage insights to attack these research questions.

Pitching a successful proposal is an art. I provide some tips at the end of this post.

NSF panel structure

You travel to NSF headquarters at Washington DC a day before the panel. (NSF pays for your travel and reimburses your stay.) Panels are generally for one and a half day. The first day all the proposals get discussed. (Actually some proposals that don't receive any "Very Good" ratings can be triaged/skipped; for those only the 3 reviewer reports are sent back without a panel discussion summary.)  The second day (i.e., the half day) is for preparing and reviewing the panel discussion summaries of proposals discussed in the first day.

In the panel, everybody is smart and knowledgeable in their fields. Of course some are smarter and more knowledgeable, and it is a treat to listen them discuss proposals. If the panel is in your narrow field of expertise, it is gonna be a geek-fest for you. You will geek out and have a lot of fun. If the panel is in a field you are familiar but is not in your specialized field of expertise, it is still a lot of fun as you get to learn new things.

At the end of first day proposals are sorted into 4 categories: HC (High Competitive), C (Competitive), LC (Low Competitive), NC (Not Competitive). HC proposals get funded. Usually only 1-2 proposals out of around 20+ proposals make it to HC. The C proposals need to get compared and ranked, this generally happens the morning of second day. Only the top 1-2 proposals in C would get funding. LC and NC proposals do not need to get sorted.

The panel does not make the final funding decision; it only provides feedback to NSF to make the final funding decisions. NSF is fairly transparent and mostly goes with panel recommendations. If a proposal is not funded, the proposers still get detailed proposal reviews with the rationale of the panel review. In contrast, some other funding agencies such as DARPA, DOE may not even provide you with reviews/evalutions of your proposal.

NSF panels are tiring. You sit for one a half day and listen and discuss. And in the evening of the first day, you often have homework (hotelwork?) to read some extra proposals to help out in comparing/ranking proposals.  Instead of trying to multitask during the panel (by answering your email, or reading other stuff), it is much better to just participate in the discussion, and listen to the discussion of other proposals, even the ones you have not reviewed. After traveling all that distance to NSF headquarters, you should try to savor the panel as much as possible.

Panel discussions, interesting panel dynamics

Panelists can make mistakes and may have biases. Common mistakes include the following:
  • Panelists may play it safe and prefer incremental proposals over novel but risky proposals. Program managers sometimes warn about this bias, and try to promote high-risk/high-reward proposals.
  • Sometimes panelists may read too much into a proposal. They may like to write/complete the proposal in their heads, and give more credit than deserved to the proposal.
  • Panelists may be overly conformist, resulting in groupthink.
  • There can be some good arguer, a charismatic person that dominates over the other panelists. 

Lessons for pitching the perfect proposal to the panel

Make sure your proposal has a novel research component and intellectual merit. Your proposed project should "advance knowledge and understanding within its own field" and "explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts". You need to get at least one panelist excited for you. So stand for something.

Be prepared to justify/support what you stand for. You can fool some panelists some of the time, but you can't fool all of the panelists all of the time. Don't make promises you can't deliver. Show preliminary results from your work. It is actually better to write the proposal after you write an initial interesting (workshop?) paper on the topic.

Target the correct panel and hit the high notes in the CFP. If your proposal falls into the wrong panel, it will get brutally beaten. When in doubt about the scope and field of a CFP, contact the program director to get information. Most academic sub-disciplines/communities will have their biases and pet peeves. You want to target a panel that will get your proposal and is not adversarial to those ideas.

Write clearly and communicate clearly. Remember, the panelists are overworked. They need to review 8 proposals over a short time. It gets boring. So make it easy for the reviewer. Don't make the reviewer do the work. Spell out the contributions and novelty clearly, put your contributions in the context of the literature on that topic. If you make the reviewer work, you will leave him angry and frustrated.

Don't forget to write about the proposal's broader impact including education and minority outreach. If you omit it, it will bite you back.

All being said, there is still a luck factor. An adversarial or cranky panelist may ruin your proposal's chances, or a panelist that loves your work may make your case and improve your chances. The acceptance rate is under 10%. So good luck!

Disclaimer: These are of course my subjective views/opinions as an academician that participated in NSF peer-review panels. My views/opinions do not bind NSF and may not reflect NSF's views/stance.


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