June 2012

Q&A with NSF’s Parag Chitnis


  Parag Chitnis

Parag Chitnis, director of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences at the National Science Foundation, first arrived at the agency in 2002 on loan from his university for what he thought would be a relatively brief stint as a program director. But, as often happens, life had other plans. Instead of heading back to Iowa State University to continue his research on plant biochemistry, he was promoted to deputy director and then director of the division. Chitnis, who once was a member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and who served on its Education and Professional Development Committee for several years, talked with ASBMB Today Editor Angela Hopp and the society’s science policy fellow, Julie McClure, about what kinds of research projects the NSF is looking to fund.

ASBMB: Why do you think it’s important for our readers to understand better what’s going on at the MCB division?

Chitnis: Most of the NSF funding for the ASBMB membership comes from my division, followed by the Division of Chemistry and Division of Physics, because some of the biophysical and chemical biology work is supported by those other divisions.

ASBMB: What are the primary differences between the NSF and the National Institutes of Health in terms of the nature of projects that are sought?

Chitnis: The first thing is that the division itself tries to give higher priority to quantitative, predictive and theory-driven science. So a combination of computation and experiment is preferred over just experimental research using traditional approaches … The other area that I think the NSF really takes pride in is exploring the frontiers at the intersections of biology with other disciplines – chemistry, physics, math, computer science, also engineering. Because all of those disciplines are supported by NSF and those divisions are here under the same roof, we make an extra effort to encourage research at these interfaces.

ASBMB: Are there specific funding mechanisms at the NSF that support projects that span the disciplines?

Chitnis: There are some new mechanisms, but the regular grants that are submitted to NSF are reviewed (for that crossover). In the case of MCB, 10 percent of our awards are co-funded with other directorates. What program directors do, if there is something that crosses the discipline, is go and talk to the program directors in that discipline and co-review those proposals. And, if the proposals do well in the review process, program directors in different divisions co-fund them.

I think readers probably want to be aware of this so they don’t try to limit their project just because they think, “Oh, this is too physical, and I don’t want to send it to a division in the Biology Directorate.” Because they need to realize that, even though some aims are more physical or very much chemistry, we have a mechanism to review those things. I think we want (principal investigators) to consider their projects without thinking about disciplinary boundaries.

There is a new mechanism called CREATIV (for Creative Research Awards for Transformative Interdisciplinary Ventures) that’s for interdisciplinary science that is really high-risk and high-impact. Up to a million dollars can be given without external review if program directors in two or more disciplines agree to fund one. Again, this program was created to address the same issue: Are there projects that don’t fit in one or more disciplines, and are we losing those?

Read Joe Provost's article on "broader impacts" 

ASBMB: What kinds of projects really aren’t in line with the NSF’s goals and strategies?

Chitnis: The projects that are funded by the Biology Directorate are for basic science purposes and not for their health relatedness. What we look at is the impact of the project on the advancement of science in general – basic principles – and not because it’s important for finding a drug for a disease. In enzymology, for example, if it’s just another enzyme with the same kind of mechanism that is already known, we would be less interested in funding that type of project, but it may be perfectly fine to be funded at the NIH, because that enzyme is involved in a metabolism important for a disease. The other major difference is we want applicants to address how a project integrates education and research. And that’s what we call the “broader impacts” criteria. It’s in addition to the intellectual merit, and we take it very seriously.

ASBMB: Can you give us some examples of broader impacts in projects funded now?

Chitnis: For example, Hazel Holden (of the University of Wisconsin-Madison) has a project where she took crystallography to middle schools. A typical broader impact is involving and mentoring undergraduates in your research. Another one is taking examples from your research to your classroom.



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