Keynote Address


College of Architecture . Texas A&M University
October 27, 2003

Challenges & Opportunities

By Dennis Wenger
Director of the National Science Foundation's Infrastructure Systems Management and Hazard Response Program

The National Science Foundation (NSF) was established by Congress through the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 “to promote the progress of science: to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; and to secure the national defense.” Over the past 53 years NSF has undertaken this unique task of supporting basic, fundamental research. No other federal agency has this charge, as all others are “mission driven.” Since 1950 NSF research has focused upon boosting the United States to the leadership position in all aspects of science, mathematics, engineering research and education. Among the many innovations developed through support by NSF are Dopplar radar, the Internet, web browsers and the Google search engine, American Sign Language, bar codes, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computer-aided design (CAD) systems, lasers used in eye surgery, buckeyballs, nanotubes, and camcorders. Currently, NSF is focusing upon such areas as Homeland Security, plant genome research, cyber infrastructure, biocomplexity and the environment, and human and social dynamics.

Today I would like to talk with you about challenges and opportunities for obtaining support from NSF. I would like to do so by first discussing the Foundation, its approach to research, and its promise. Then I will talk about the reality of NSF funding and discuss some of the obstacles that tend to work against success in obtaining NSF support. Finally, I will discuss some tactics and opportunities that you can utilize to increase your chances for success.


NSF is an independent federal agency that does not report to any cabinet department. The Director of NSF, currently Rita Colwell, reports directly to the President. The 24-member National Science Board guides NSF’s activities. Dr. Ray Bowen, our former President, is a member of that board. Internally, NSF is organized into directorates and offices: Biological Sciences, Computer and Information Science and Engineering, Education and Human Resources, Engineering, Geosciences, International Programs, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences and Polar Programs. Within each directorate there are a variety of divisions and programs. For example, I am located with the Engineering directorate in the Division of Civil and Mechanical Systems and direct the program on Infrastructure System Management and Hazard Response.

The Budget

The budget for NSF for fiscal year 2004 is $5.48 billion. This represents: a $453 million increase over 2003. It is also part of a projected effort to triple the budget of NSF by 2008. Most of this money is budgeted for research activities, with education and human resources also receiving almost $1 billion.

At NSF all activities are classified as being in one of three categories: 1) People, 2) Ideas, or 3) Tools. People refer to projects that invest in a diverse, internationally competitive workforce. These involve education and training programs, investments in students, etc. Ideas are the essence of the NSF research mandate to push discovery across traditional frontiers and to engage in basic, fundamental, innovative projects. Tools are the research and educational tools that are produced by NSF sponsored projects. For this year, 49% (about half) of all the available funds are being spent on Ideas, 25% on Tools, and 21% on People. Please note that of every $100 that is given by Congress to NSF, $95 is dispensed to researchers across the country. Administration and management costs are actually less than 5%.

The Approach

The essence of NSF’s approach to basic research is captured in three concepts: 1) Investigator-Driven, 2) Peer-Reviewed, and 3) Grant, not Contract, based. Although Program Directors at NSF do attempt to influence and manage the future of research in their various fields by offering Solicitations for specific types of research which we will discuss in more detail in a moment, at heart NSF places its primary faith in the research community and the investigators across the country to drive the direction of research in the United States. The prototypical NSF grant is an Unsolicited Proposal. The topic, design, and nature of which is up to the discretion and under the control of the Principal Investigator. At NSF we believe that no one is better prepared to determine the future direction of basic research in a field than the research community that is doing it. Furthermore, no one is as competent to evaluate the quality of that research than the peers in the field. Therefore, with a few minor exceptions that I will discuss later, all NSF research undergoes rigorous peer review through the use of extensive individual and panel reviews by experts in the field who make recommendations to the Program Directors on what research should be funded. The final decision resides with the Program Director, but the opinions and recommendation of the experts from the field of investigation are honored and have extreme influence on the funding decision.

Furthermore, it must be stressed that NSF awards grants, not contracts. As opposed to specifying a predetermined methodology, approach or deliverables, NSF basically gives support to ideas. This is the only way to undertake basic, fundamental research. If you already know how to do something and what you are going to get out of the exercise, you are not operating at the frontier of knowledge. Basic research takes you in directions that you may never have envisioned. Often there is a tremendous difference between the research that is described in the proposal and the actual research that results from the award, and, most often, this is good.

Interestingly, this approach results in NSF being possibly the least political federal agency in the government. What goes on at NSF is dictated by research communities and scholars—not by politicians, members of Congress, or administrative officials. For example, Clinton appointed the current NSF Director. No NSF Director has ever been removed by the incoming President. They have all served the full eight-year length of their terms. No direct pressure is placed on NSF by outside political forces to fund specific projects.


To the research community, the promise of NSF is that it will award over $5 billion this year for outstanding research. What the research community needs to know is “What is not at NSF? What kinds of research are they most interested in supporting?”

The "hot item” is multidisciplinary research. Currently, NSF is committed to supporting research that crosses boundaries of traditional disciplines. Basically, all of the foundation-wide priority areas that I will mention in a moment are interdisciplinary in nature. Allow me to give you an example from my own program.

DISCUSS MRCIRS—Multidisciplinary Research on Critical Infrastructure and Related Systems—Disaster and Terrorism oriented. Eng. and Soc. Scie. 67 proposals.

NSF Priority Areas

Currently, NSF has the following priority areas: Biocomplexity in the Environment, Information Technology Research, Nanoscaler Science and Engineering, Mathematical Sciences, Human and Social Dynamics, and Workforce for the 21st Century. All of these areas are multidisciplinary in nature. The two with the most relevance to this College are Biocomplexity in the Environment and Human and Social Dynamics.

NSF Review Criteria:

There are only two criteria that every proposal is evaluated against: 1) Intellectual Merit and 2) Broader Impacts. With regard to Intellectual Merit, the following dimensions are evaluated: 1) importance in advancing knowledge and understanding; 2) the qualification of the investigator(s); 3) creativity and originality; 4) conception, organization, and research design, and 5) existence of adequate resources. With regard to Broader Impacts, the following criteria are considered: 1) integration of research with teaching, learning, and training, 2) impacts upon underrepresented groups, 3) enhancement of the research infrastructure, 4) dissemination and impact upon field of research, and 5) societal impacts.

We are required to specifically discuss the first two broader impact criteria for all proposals, i.e., educational impacts and underrepresented groups. This directly relates to the old myths about the relationship between teaching and scholarship or research, or as it is known, “teaching versus research.” NSF strongly supports the integration of research activities and findings into educational issues such as curriculum revision and undergraduate and graduate training. In fact, it is almost impossible to get support for a grant from NSF that does not have educational benefits. NSF is very serious about this issue. Currently, NSF supports 213,000 researchers, post-doctoral fellows, trainees, teachers, graduate students and undergraduate students.

These are the only criteria that reviewers may evaluate. Please note what cannot be discussed about a proposal: the home institution of the investigator, where the investigator received their degrees, the political affiliation of your congressional representative, and the budget.

The final element of The Promise is that 2,000 organizations, including colleges and universities, schools, nonprofit institutions and small businesses, will receive NSF funds each year. Total awards will be 20,000 and new awards will total about 10,000.


NSF awards are some of the most highly valued and prestigious research awards in the nation. Obtaining an NSF award, or failing to obtain an NSF award, has had profound impacts upon many academic careers. Why are NSF awards so highly valued? Someone could point to such elements as the strong peer review system and the competitive awarding of grants based solely upon intellectual merit and broader impacts, and not political shenanigans. These are important, but I believe the reason that NSF awards are so highly valued is because they are so hard to get.

The reality is that the overall success rate for competitive solicited and unsolicited proposals at NSF is 17 percent. However, some programs and divisions have even lower levels of success. In my division, for example, the over rate last year was 13 percent, while the rate for my program was 11 percent. (With regard to the MRCIRS competition, we were able to fund only 3 of the 67 proposals.) At the other extreme, some divisions and programs have success rate of about 30 percent. This means that I have to say “no” to nine out of every ten people who submit a proposal.


1. Simple Odds

All else being equal, your NSF proposal will not be funded. With regard to competitive proposals, you have about a one in five chance of success. Each year we receive many more quality proposals than can be awarded. Although the NSF budget has shown steady growth and has been authorized to significantly increase in the next five years, the capability of NSF to fund all worthy proposals is exceeded by demands upon the foundation in terms of proposal loads. (By the way, the ability of some investigators, like Mike Lindell, to have a success rate over 85% is truly extraordinary. That is a stupendous achievement.)

2. Lack of Good, Solid Science

A number of interesting proposals are submitted each year. They may involve important topics of societal impact, such as homeland security issues. I often talk with some of the seasoned Program Directors at NSF about various proposals. Too often, they will say to me, “Well, that is a nice, interesting project. Where is the science in it? They call this place the ‘Science Foundation,’ after all. Where is the science?”

Among some of the reasons for declining proposals related to their intellectual or scientific merit are the following: 1) lack of new or original ideas, 2) incremental research (this is not a positive at NSF), 3) lack of theoretical relevance, 4) diffuse, superficial or unfocused research plan, 5) lack of knowledge of relevant literature, 6) lack of experience in relevant methodology, 7) lack of sufficient detail in research design, 8) unrealistically large amount of work, 9) lack of broader impacts, and 10) flaws in the research design.

These issues are associated either with NSF or with the individual investigator. However, there are two additional factors that are obstacles to success at the highest level of national competition that reside on campuses across the United States.

Lack of Institutional Support for Research

Undertaking research at a high, national competitive level requires commitment to supporting research on the campus. The problem is that certain administrators, either because of their own lack of experience with such efforts or because of their failure to appreciate the inherent reciprocal relationship between teaching and research, fail to provide needed incentives, rewards, space, or commitment to the investigators. This problem is particularly pronounced for projects involving multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary teams of researchers. Since NSF is committed to supporting these types of activities, investigators from certain settings are at a disadvantage. (I would like to commend Dean Regan for appointing an Associate Dean for Research. That position is needed in all colleges across the country.)

Too Much Local Support for Research

It must be noted that there is also the opposite problem of too much local support for research. In other words, there is the “easy money” obstacle. Some universities benefit from extensive local, state or regional research funding. The source of these funds may be public or private, and ranges from state governments to private industries and businesses. Often this money is provided for applied research or standard “carpentry” projects. There is nothing wrong with this type of funding. It supports both undergraduate and graduate students, provides a vital service to local and state governments, and keeps the investigators both busy and supported during the summer.

However, the availability of this “easy money” is an obstacle to producing basic research proposals that compete for federal, competitive, peer-reviewed funds. Who would want to spend time competing for an award where the odds are greatly stacked against you, as opposed to submitting a proposal that is basically a “lock?” Also, it appears to me that investigators who live primarily on “easy money” lose their edge. The proposals they produce are not as sharp, well honed, and scientifically rigorous. It is important at universities with large “locked” research funds that they develop mechanisms to promote and reward competition by their faculty at the highest levels.


At NSF there are a variety of different awards. The competitive awards generally are of two types: Solicited Awards and Unsolicited Awards.

Solicited Awards

In these competitions NSF requests proposals on a certain topic or area. NSF defines the topic area, the budget, and who may submit. NSF defines all of the rules. The funding levels vary, but may be larger than the unsolicited awards. For example, “Large ITR proposals” or “Grand Challenges” may be over $1 million per year for up to five years. For investigators, do not rely upon your sponsored projects office to learn of these. Do subscribe to NSF Custom News Service, and talk with program directors. One word of warning, however, is that the success rate for solicitations, given the volume or proposals that are submitted, are generally lower than for Unsolicited proposals, i.e., most are less than 10 percent.

Unsolicited Awards

These awards are at the heart of the NSF approach to research. The topics are determined by the investigator(s). Most programs have two unsolicited deadlines each year. Proposals are generally about $150,000 for from one to three years. These are handled by individual programs and program directors. Most of the proposals are disciplinary in nature. The success rate is higher than for solicited proposals.

No proposal to NSF should ever truly be “unsolicited.” Contact the program director before you submit your proposal. Attempt to get feedback from the program director on the appropriateness of your proposal. You might even want to send a “letter proposal” with two or three different research topics and see which gets the most positive feedback.

If you look at certain statistics NSF seems to fund proposals at a higher percentage than 17 percent. For example, NSF receives about 35,000 competitive proposals each year and, as noted, makes about 10,000 awards. That seems higher than 17 percent, and it is. What is the difference?

There are two types of awards that do not undergo the same rigorous peer review. The decision to fund these awards resides solely with the Program Director. These types of awards are SGER’s and Workshop Support.

Small Grants for Exploratory Research (SGER)

The decision to award a SGER, not SUGAR, resides solely with the Program Director. Starting this year, these awards can be for up to $200,000, but most are much smaller, i.e., $40,000-$50,000. (Program Directors are only allowed to spend 5 percent of their total budget on SGERs.) As opposed to 15 pages, these proposals must not be more than 5 pages in length. Proposals may be submitted at any time. They are to fund two types of research: 1) the collection of ephemeral or short-lived data that must be gathered quickly, e.g., post-disaster investigations, and 2) research that is exploratory and truly pushes the envelope, i.e., the low probability, high consequence type of proposal. These types of proposals are very risky, not likely to be successful, but would be paradigm shifting if they were. These types of proposals do not review well with panels. Program Directors are given discretion. This is our “mad money.” Never submit a SGER unsolicited to a program director. It will be declined and rejected—guaranteed! Contact the Program Director about your proposed research and negotiate, send drafts of the proposal, and interact and iterate before submission. When the program director says it is okay, submit the proposal and get the NSF award.

Workshops and Symposia

The Program Director also has discretion to fund workshops and symposia. While there is technically no limit to the amount of funds that may be awarded to support a workshop or symposia, most are under $100,000. (Larger workshops may require peer review.) Proposals, which are usually about 7 to 10 pages, may be submitted at any time. The investigator determines topic and format. NSF does require certain things, such as the establishment of a website, systematic procedures to select participants, and rather stringent criteria for evaluating the success of the workshop.

SGER and Workshop awards are a way to “get your foot in the door at NSF.” They are particularly useful for young researchers who have yet to establish a “track record” with NSF. Since they are not peer reviewed, their success rate is close to 100%.


Which brings us to CAREER awards. NSF is committed to supporting young faculty in both their research and teaching careers. One of the finest examples of this is the Faculty Early Career Development Program or the CAREER awards. These awards are for untenured faculty. Junior faculty choose a research topic. The awards are for five years and with a minimum budget of $80,000 per year. You can get matching funds for an additional $50,000 per year. What is interesting about these awards is that they integrate research and teaching. Half of the 15-page proposal is a five-year research plan into a topic of the investigator’s choice. The other half of the proposal is a discussion of how the research results and activities will be integrated into teaching, curriculum development, educational outreach activities, and technology transfer. These awards are highly competitive, but the rewards of obtaining a CAREER are sweet.


If you have any desire to receive NSF funding, you should volunteer to serve on review panels. This is a valuable experience, particularly for young researchers. NSF program directors are always looking for reviewers and panelists. Contact the program director, submit your vita and send a letter describing the areas of research that you believe you are qualified to evaluate. It will let you know how reviewers operate, what they look for, and it is a way to interact with your research community.

Obviously, it is critically important that you contact and interact with the individuals who are directing your research programs. Never submit a SGER or a workshop proposal to NSF without having first contacted the program director and eventually getting their approval for submission. Send letter proposals attached to an email to the program director. Run possible research topics by the director; get their feedback on which ones they would like to see. Proposals that arrive “out of the blue” have less of a chance of being funded.

Every organization has a rhythm, and it is a good idea to get to know the cycle of deadlines and funding decisions that exist at NSF. For example, awards that are discretionary on the part of program directors are more likely to be funded if they come in around the time of “close out” on the budget year when any available funds “disappear.”

It is essential that your proposals are clearly written and understandable to an intelligent researcher who may not be a specialist in your field. All proposals are evaluated by reviewers and panelists who are experts in the topic, however, given the incredible diversity of proposals—particularly those submitted for unsolicited deadlines—it is also possible that one or two reviewers or panelists will not be a specialist in your area. Therefore, avoid jargon and clearly explain those elements that border on “insider” knowledge.

Finally, send your proposal to colleagues prior to submission. Both you and your colleagues will benefit from this review.


Finally, there are some programs that are directly relevant to the College of Architecture. In Civil and Mechanical Systems there is Program 1631. It is called “Information Technology and Infrastructure Systems.” It is the “sister” program of mine. This program is where research on construction management and construction science is undertaken. Currently, they are interested in such topics as sustainable construction practices and life-cycle costing. If you are in construction science and have an idea for research, this is whom you should talk to.

Biocomplexity and the Environment is a foundation-wide, multidisciplinary initiative that has relevance for both architecture and landscape architecture. It treats the built and natural environments as both independent and dependent variables.

Human and Social Dynamics is another foundation-wide multidisciplinary initiative that has particular relevance for planning. It focuses upon a variety of focus areas, including multidisciplinary studies of disasters, and such topics as urbanization, modernization, and globalization. One entire focus area is upon the utilization of GIS in analyses.

Finally, there are two additional programs in Civil and Mechanical Systems that have relevance to the College of Architecture. Program 1637, Structural Systems and Hazard Mitigation of Structures, focuses upon research on the design of structures and their resilience to outside forces. Program 1638, Infrastructure Management and Hazard Response, is my program and it focuses upon research on hazards and disasters and upon infrastructure and transportation systems.

Thank you so very much.

- The End -

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