Advice from the NSF: Get to know your program officer

  • Advice from the NSF
    Advice from the NSF
    Karen Pearce, senior legislative affairs specialist with the National Science Foundation, gives an introduction and overview of the NSF’s grant review process. Researchers from across Virginia attended the NSF Day event held at William & Mary.
    Photo by Dennis Manos

Cindy Corbett has a piece of advice for faculty seeking federal funding: Get to know your program officer.

Corbett is the associate director of sponsored programs at William & Mary. Her office worked collaboratively with the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and Graduate Professional Studies to offer a spring workshop on campus that brought a number of National Science Foundation officials—including William & Mary’s own Peter Vishton—to deliver the inside story on NSF grants and the best way to go about getting them.

Vishton, an associate professor on leave from William & Mary’s psychology department, is completing an inter-governmental personnel assignment serving as a program director in the NSF’s Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences in Arlington, VA. He participated in one of the seven breakout sessions, which also included NSF representatives from the following directorates:  biological sciences, computer and information science, education and human resources, engineering, geosciences, mathematical and physical sciences and social, behavioral, and economic sciences.

Getting insight into a federal funding agency’s priorities and advice on how to improve your chances of funding is always valuable information, but is even more to the point in the post-sequestration era. 

This funding year, William & Mary received nearly $4.5 million from the NSF. This total includes the year’s payments for multi-year grants. Individual grant items range from support for individual faculty research projects to initiatives with a broader scope, such as Women in Science Education (WISE). Competition for NSF grants is considerable—figures presented to the  attendees at the National Science Foundation Day at William & Mary showed that in the last fiscal year, the NSF reviewed more than 48,000 proposals, out of which fewer than 12,000 were funded.

Karen H. Pearce, senior legislative affairs specialist at the NSF, gave an overview of the grant funding process at the agency as well as a presentation titled “Proposal Preparation 101.” Her colleague, Kathryn Sullivan, of the NSF’s office of international and integrative activities, spoke on cross-disciplinary and international programs.

The all-day session targeted junior faculty and others beginning or restarting a research career. The program allowed participants that included William & Mary faculty and faculty from other Virginia colleges, to see the human side of the NSF. Corbett said a variety of messages came out of the event and most boiled down to the advantages of direct, personal contact with the agency’s program directors. They’re the ones who coordinate review of proposals.

“The overarching theme is that the program officers are really advocates for the researchers,” Corbett explained. “They want to develop relationships with faculty who are writing these grants.”

She added that faculty should not be discouraged if their grant proposal isn’t funded upon the first submission. Keep in mind, she said, there are proposal review criteria to include intellectual merit, broader impacts, and other NSF priorities.

“Your well-written proposal might not get funded because program officers have other parameters that they have to keep balanced,” Corbett said. “For instance, they can’t have grants going to all large universities. They can’t all go to one kind of research.”

She urged researchers to learn from their rejected NSF proposals by asking for the review comments and using them to prepare a revised, more thorough, proposal. Corbett noted researchers working across disciplinary lines should work to find the proper NSF niche for their grant. The best way to do this, she said, is by direct contact with the program officer.

“Talk to your program officer early,” Corbett said. “Talk to them often. Develop a rapport with them.”