NSF Committee Discusses Grant Portfolio and Interdisciplinary Research

By | May 11, 2017

The Advisory Committee for the Biological Sciences Directorate (BIO) at the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently received an update about a new agency-wide portfolio analysis tool, grant mechanisms, and interdisciplinary research projects.

During sessions held at NSF headquarters in Arlington, VA on April 25 and 26, visiting committee members heard from agency staff about ongoing work pertaining to grant-making processes. Brent Miller, PhD, BIO science advisor, outlined a new agency-wide portfolio analysis tool designed to better understand the breadth of scientific projects supported by NSF grants. The goal of this project is to identify areas of intellectual similarity or overlap between disparate scientific fields that might lead to fruitful interdisciplinary collaboration. In the long run, the tool might help NSF to identify cutting-edge areas of science for funding that don’t necessarily fit into traditional academic disciplines.

The committee also heard about grant mechanisms within BIO, including an update about a grant pre-proposal pilot program. The project required grant applicants to the divisions of Environmental Biology and Integrative and Organismal Systems to submit a short pre-proposal before being invited to submit a full proposal. An evaluation of the pilot suggested that the pre-proposal system improved the quality of projects at the full proposal stage, reduced the burden on institutions and individual investigators, and had other positive effects. However, a concern was that the new system might limit the scope of funded research and place a greater burden on NSF staff. The committee also learned that the Collections in Support of Biological Research program, which funds both living stock centers and natural history collections, will resume and solicit new proposals in the next few months following an extended hiatus.

Much of the meeting was spent hearing from representatives of organizations with whom NSF has forged collaborative research partnerships. Mary Voytek, PhD, from NASA joined the meeting via telephone to describe initiatives between the two agencies pertaining to astrobiology, the origins of life, and other areas. Parag Chitnis, PhD, from the Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture, outlined a number of joint research projects with NSF, including work on the microbiome and the translation of genomic research to the enhancement of crop breeding. Stephen Elsby, PhD, representing the Research Councils of the United Kingdom (RCUK), gave a brief overview of the scientific funding system of the UK. He also talked about how RCUK and NSF have pioneered a streamlined system allowing investigators to jointly apply for collaborative research grants between the two countries. Finally, Josh Rosenthal, PhD, from the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), described collaborative projects funded by NIH and NSF, most notably the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease Program. Taken together, the presentations led to lively discussions among committee members about how NSF could further leverage its expertise to advance transformative research across the biological sciences.