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.
THE NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
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 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 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.
THE OBSTACLES TO SUCCESS
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.
SOME OPPORTUNITIES AND SUGGESTIONS FOR SUCCESS
At NSF there are a variety of different awards. The competitive
awards generally are of two types: Solicited Awards and Unsolicited
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
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
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
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
SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVING CHANCES OF FUNDING
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.
NSF PROGRAMS PARTICULARLY RELEVANT TO THE COLLEGE OF ARCHITECTURE
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
Thank you so very much.