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.


   Click here for PDF.

ASBMB: Do some of these broader impacts criteria involve public outreach?

Chitnis: Yes, they do. We had one that involved preparing videos for public outreach. There are some whose broader impacts involve going to public meetings and presenting. There is one (Faculty Early Career Development Program, or CAREER) grant awardee in Alabama who is doing evolution-related outreach events for the public. And people can ask for funds in their budgets for this kind of activity.

ASBMB: Are there differences in the sizes of the grants or the durations compared with the NIH?

Chitnis: We can fund up to five years, and I think we’d emphasize that the award duration should be in proportion to the scope of the project. It should be something the PI decides. Unless the review says that there isn’t enough work to do for five years, we do not adjust duration. But otherwise, what the PI asks for we give them. Our current median size is $200,000 a year, and that includes indirect costs. But, of course, the range is from $100,000 to $1 million a year. Last year’s funding rate of MCB was about 16 percent.

ASBMB: The deadline structure at the MCB division has changed. Can you tell us about those adjustments?

Chitnis: About a year ago, the division changed its practices based on the advice of an external committee, which comes and evaluates us every three years. We had deadlines every six months, and they told us that wasn’t enough time for meaningful revision if the grant gets declined, because once the PI found out, there were only a few weeks left before the next deadline. That’s not enough time to revise the proposal meaningfully. So we shifted the cycle length to eight months. Now we have at least two months for the PI to revise. Also, instead of four cycles every two years, now we have three cycles every two years. Some of the other divisions in the BIO directorate have moved to one cycle a year, but most of those divisions may not be relevant to ASBMB members. Now we are evaluating the impact of this change on the PIs and the review process.

ASBMB: How do you see these deadline changes affecting those seeking tenure? If there are fewer opportunities for submitting proposals throughout the year, isn’t that going to push tenure back even further for them?

Chitnis: For the beginning investigator, they have five chances in two years. They can also send us CAREER proposals separately. Deadlines for those CAREER proposals are in July. The funds for CAREER and regular proposals come from the same pot, so the funding rate is about the same. These (CAREER awards) are five-year grants for untenured assistant professors where they talk about their research as well as their educational activities to start off their career. The size is about the same in MCB at $200,000 a year for five years for a CAREER grant.

ASBMB: Are there other differences between the NSF and the NIH you want to emphasize?

Chitnis: At NSF, the program directors make funding decisions, while the panels, the equivalent of study sections at NIH, are advisory to program directors. The panels put the proposals into categories instead of numerical scores, and then the program directors look at all those highly rated proposals and prepare a list of projects that will complement and advance the portfolio of projects that are already funded. That would mean balancing the demographics, diversity, types of projects, areas of science. NSF’s responsibility is, even though we are not a mission agency, to have the top scientific infrastructure in the country, so that’s why we look at the geographical distribution or different areas of science or different types of institutions.

ASBMB: What can you tell us about the NSF program directors?

Chitnis: About half of our program directors come from a university on loan, and they go back to the university. They come here for one to two years. So we have a direct connection to the community that we serve. The remaining program directors are permanent. And when they get hired, they are typically tenured, full professors at universities, and we hire them because they have had strong records of publication, grantsmanship, vision for the future directions in science, and they can represent the community well.

ASBMB: What other ways do you get input from the scientific community?

Chitnis: We have a lot of other mechanisms to get community input in what we do and what we think are the future exciting areas, and I think that is very important for us in making those funding decisions. Holding workshops is one way to do it. For example, there was one about RNA and protein folding last summer, which tried to bring together RNA folding people and protein folding researchers so that we can find out what the real challenges are and what we can do about it.

ASBMB: Is there anything you want to emphasize to readers considering submitting to the NSF?

Chitnis: I think what we are really looking for is high-risk, high-impact ideas that will advance the field substantially, because those have a better chance for us to make a bigger impact on the progress of science. Some of the projects we funded, even though the peer review didn’t rate them highly, ended up starting new fields or the PI won NIH Director’s Pioneer Awards.

 Angela_HoppJulie McClureAngela Hopp (ahopp@asbmb.org) is editor of ASBMB Today. Follow her on Twitter at @angelahopp. Julie McClure (jmcclure@asbmb.org) is ASBMB’s science policy fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @mcclurephd.

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