Demystifying the NSF Process

by Anita Guerrini, Oregon State University

Over the course of my career, I’ve had four National Science Foundation (NSF) grants to fund my research on early-modern topics. The first, back in the early 1980s, was a Dissertation Improvement Fellowship, and I remember sending multiple (20?) Xerox copies of my application through the mail. The most recent, granted just last year, is a Standard Grant, filed online. I’ve also—as have many HSS members—reviewed proposals for NSF, as well as for other granting agencies, and I have served on the NSF STS panel in suburban Washington. I’m not sure this makes me an expert on the NSF, but since I’ve been involved at both ends of the process, maybe my experience can help demystify it a bit.

If you are even thinking about applying to NSF, the first thing to do is check the STS program solicitation. History of Science is under the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) program, which is under the Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES), all of which are included in the directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Science (SBE): Washington is the land of acronyms. The easiest way to access the STS website is to do a Google search for “NSF STS” (without the quotes). The current program directors are Fred Kronz (a philosopher of science), and Wenda Bauchspies, whose background is in sociology and STS. Fred and Wenda are there to guide you through the application process. They can’t write your proposal for you, but they can offer well-informed advice.

Get to know the grants people at your institution. Since almost every college and university in the US receives some sort of federal funding, there will almost certainly be a Sponsored Projects Office on your campus, which will be familiar with NSF and with FastLane (the online federal grant submission system). That does not mean you have to have an academic affiliation to apply— many people have been quite successful applying as independent scholars. But if you are at an institution, you will need to apply through that institution (and they will take a chunk of your grant as “overhead”).

On the NSF website, take some time to look at the list of previous awards in your field. You can look at just the STS awards—there’s a link at the bottom of the STS program page—and if you click on the award title, you will be taken to a page with an abstract. This is helpful in giving you an idea of the range of topics that are considered STS, and it will also give you insights into what you might be competing against. STS covers history, philosophy, and sociology of science, and most years, history proposals, particularly in premodern eras, are decidedly in the minority. This definitely does not mean you should not apply! More on this below.

Before you begin your proposal, you should consult the NSF FastLane page. Go to the “FastLane FAQs” for a downloadable “FastLane Help” manual. This will guide you through the labyrinth of NSF forms required for a FastLane application. It does not give specific information on writing a proposal; for that you need to the consult the somewhat daunting Proposal and Awards Policies and Procedures Guide, or PAPPG, which gives details on the correct length of proposal narratives (Project Descriptions, in NSF-speak) and what needs to be included. It is best to download a PDF of that so you can search it easily. A lot of it is, of course, geared toward scientists, but buried in the bureaucratic prose (including a list of acronyms!) are essential instructions and requirements for preparing a proposal—you must follow the guidelines to the letter. The main sections of an NSF Project Description are the overview, intellectual merit, and broader impacts. These are displayed in miniature in your one-page Project Summary (written, of course, after you have written the Project Description itself), and at greater length in your 15-page Project Description. First, a bit of advice: keep strictly to the prescribed length (and yes, 15 pages rather than a word count is kind of vague, but think of scientists who don’t necessarily write their entire proposal in prose but include equations or diagrams). The PAPPG specifies accepted typefaces, sizes, and margins. As far as spacing, the rule is “no more than six lines of text within a vertical space of one inch.”

The Project Description should be as precise as possible about two main things: what you are going to do during the period of your grant, and what the final products of your research will be. Note that not all of these products need to be completed within the grant period: if you are just starting on a project, the two years of most grants will almost certainly not be enough to do the research for and write a book. You should be able to discuss with confidence where your work fits within the existing historiography, and how it changes or expands upon it. As the PAPPG states, “Proposers should address what they want to do, why they want to do it, how they plan to do it, how they will know if they succeed, and what benefits could accrue if the project
is successful.” Keep in mind that although the external reviewers of your proposal will be experts in your field, the members of the panel may not be. So you need to leave out in-group jargon and write as clearly as possible for an educated, STS savvy but not necessarily history-savvy audience.

Be sure to leave room in your Project Description for the all-important “Broader Impacts” section. This can include many things, such as how you will disseminate the results of your research beyond academe. A list of examples appears at https://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=13626. It is important to note that diversity is also an important goal, and you should highlight the ways in which your research might contribute to a more diverse and inclusive science. There is no prescribed length for this section, but it should be at least a page.

At this point, you have gone over your project description with a fine-tooth comb for typos, included your 7-page bibliography and statements on data management and facilities and equipment. You have included your 2-page bio according to NSF guidelines (no, you can’t append your 20-page CV). Your budget, you think, is reasonable. So you send your submission to your Sponsored Projects Office at least a week before the NSF deadline, and they press the button to submit. Now what happens?

In the next six months or so, your proposal goes through two sets of review. First, it is sent to experts in your field (and you can suggest reviewers, or list those whom you think would not give a fair review). They will read your proposal and rank it according to five categories: Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair, Poor. The reviewers will write comments, and you will get to see these after the reviewing process is over. Whether you get the grant or not, the comments can be very helpful. If you are asked to be a proposal reviewer, please do it if at all possible. It is indeed time-consuming, but it is one of the best kinds of service, and it will give you a better feel for what constitutes a good proposal, as well as helping your fellow historians with well-reasoned comments. Of course if you review a proposal, you will need to maintain confidentiality.

After proposal review, a review panel meets twice a year in Washington, DC (actually Arlington, Virginia, where the NSF moved several years ago). These meetings are in spring (late March-early April) and fall (late October early November). The panel consists of about 15 people, representing the fields and disciplines that the STS directorate covers: history of science, history of technology, philosophy of science, sociology, STS. When I was on the panel I was one of I think three or four historians, and the only pre-1800 historian. The panelists are each assigned a dozen or so proposals to review before the meeting, not all of which are in their areas of expertise—I did not, for example, get all of the history proposals. The panel also has access to the reviewers’ rankings and comments. They then add their own rankings. Each proposal is reviewed by two panelists.

The panel meeting itself takes place over an intense three days, in a room full of computers— everything is done online—presided over by genial overlord Fred Kronz. At the panel I attended, we had over 100 proposals to consider for an unspecified, but pretty small, number of awards. Often it is unclear exactly how many awards can or will be made, owing to congressional delays or budgetary snafus, as well as the size of individual budgets. But the panelists are very aware that not everyone will be funded, and indeed that most applicants will not be funded. The panel carefully considers each proposal. Those whose reviews are all “fair” or “poor” most likely will have little chance of funding but are nonetheless discussed. I was very impressed by the focus and dedication of my fellow panelists, who strove to be as fair as possible. At least one of my favorites went down in flames before the panel’s withering gaze, while others rose in my estimation after a spirited defense. Fueled by coffee and fruit trays, the panel powered through the proposals, ranking them into several categories that differ from the excellent-to-poor categories of the external reviewers. The panel’s categories include, among others, “highly recommended,” “recommended,” and “do not fund.” The proposals are also ranked within these categories, because it is never clear at the time the panel meets exactly how many can actually be funded.

Budgets are not part of the panel’s purview, although if a budget seems inflated someone
may comment on it. But a big-ticket proposal can swamp its competition, and your program officers will often request budget revisions from successful applicants in order to fund a few more. To give a somewhat different example: many years ago I was on an NEH panel for editions and translations, and we agreed to fund two very big-ticket items whose names you would recognize, leaving a very small pool of dollars for the other 30 or so applicants.

Once the panel has made its rankings, the program officers get to work figuring out how many can be funded, requesting budget revisions, informing applicants of the fate of their applications, and making it all look pretty seamless. The notifications generally go out about two months after the panel meeting, so that if your application is unsuccessful, you have time to regroup, and, paying close attention to your reviewers’ comments, revise your proposal for the next submission, in February or August. Resubmissions are very common and are not considered differently than firsttime submissions—so don’t be discouraged if you don’t make it on the first try. It is fiercely competitive. Serving as a proposal reviewer and, if you can spare the time, serving on a review panel are invaluable experiences that will help you to produce a better application. I certainly applied the knowledge I gained from serving on a panel to my most recent successful NSF application.

Funding of all sorts is uncertain in our current political climate. But simply the act of writing a proposal is a very useful exercise—small consolation, to be sure, if you do not get funding. Your program officers work very hard to help applicants with the process, and many times will man (and woman) a table at the HSS annual meeting to talk over proposals. They will also give feedback on preliminary proposals. Take advantage of this, even if your next proposal is months or years away. And don’t give up.