ESA conversation with the NSF BIO Assistant Director

Blog post by ESA President Osvaldo Sala

On April 9, I represented ESA in a meeting with Joanne Tornow, NSF assistant director for the NSF Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO). Tornow organized the Zoom meeting to listen to concerns of scientific society leaders and to inform us of NSF’s COVID-19 pandemic response. The other attendees were presidents and CEOs of scientific societies within the field of biology. ESA Executive Director Catherine O’Riordan also joined the meeting.

Tornow, who was joined by the BIO Directorate Deputy Assistant Director, Alan Tessier, began the conversation by clearly stating that NSF remains fully operational and functioning online during the pandemic. She stressed that NSF needs the full participation of the community of scientists who provide reviews and write proposals.

Other highlighted topics for discussion included these thoughts:

  • The importance of links between societies and NSF during COVID-19: Tornow emphasized the important link that scientific societies provide for communicating between their member scientists and the NSF.
  • How NSF is providing leniency to assist the community: She indicated that NSF has asked all program officers to be as flexible as possible. Her recent Bio Buzz blog post outlined how NSF has built-in flexibility for no-cost extensions (
  • The NSF Budget Increases: She also indicated that the NSF received a 2.5% increase for FY2020 Budget, which is $203M more than the previous year. The NSF also received $76M in the COVID-19 stimulus package, primarily for research targeting the spread of the virus. NSF has already received >2,000 RAPID/EAGER proposals for these funds. Overall, proposal numbers are robust and NSF is able to process them while staff work remotely.
  • Support for At-Risk Students: She expressed concern for graduate students who are supported by NSF funded grants and that it is important those students do not get lost in the disruptions caused by the pandemic. Lastly, she stressed the importance of equity, diversity and inclusion and she is worried that the most vulnerable students and institutions will be suffering more under COVID-19.

During the open and wide-ranging discussion, I noted the importance of offering supplements for NSF-funded grants that will continue to support graduate students, post-docs, and technicians who would otherwise be let go or not allowed to continue working due to lab or office closures. I also suggested that NSF combine resources from computational sciences, engineering, and behavioral sciences to develop tools and training to deploy large-scale scientific meetings online. The group also discussed the possibility of NSF surveying the community to understand the impacts of the pandemic and of NSF helping to create a clearinghouse for online teaching resources across scientific disciplines.

Tornow closed the meeting by thanking the group and assuring us that she was open to continued input from scientific societies. She noted that they will discuss metrics on BIO proposal submissions at the BIO Advisory Committee meeting in April.  If you have additional questions or suggestions, I am happy to bring them to her attention. You can reach me at

Osvaldo Sala