June 2012

Q&A with NSF’s Parag Chitnis

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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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