NSF Biological Sciences Advisory Committee Meets Amid Pandemic, Discuss COVID-19 impacts, switch to no-deadlines and more.

The National Science Foundation’s Biological Science’s Advisory Committee (BIO AC) held a virtual, abbreviated meeting April 30 amid the coronavirus pandemic. The committee, composed of biological and ecological scientists from across the research enterprise, typically meets twice a year for a two-day in-person meeting.

Here are some of the highlights from that meeting relevant to the ecological science community:

COVID-19 and NSF

Overall, NSF remains fully operational with agency staff working from home. NSF is funding COVID related research across the scientific disciplines and extending the maximum possible flexibilities for grantees.

Assistant Director for the Biological Sciences Directorate Joanne Tornow shared that NSF has received over 700 grants applications for research relevant to COVID and issued around 400 RAPID awards (numbers updated as of May 12). Most of these awards were funded through the $76 million provided to NSF in the CARES Act, with some grants funded through FY 2020 NSF appropriations.

For current grantees, Tornow pointed toward NSF built-in flexibility for no-cost extensions for current awardees, which can help researchers experiencing COVID related delays. She expressed concern for graduate students who are supported by NSF funded grants and that those students must not get lost in the disruptions caused by the pandemic. Tornow also stressed the importance of equity, diversity and inclusion and shared concerns that COVID-19 will disproportionately impact the most vulnerable students and institutions.

During an open discussion about the impacts of COVID-19 on science, BIO AC members shared concerns about keeping recent graduates in the STEM pipeline and the cancellation of some research experiences for undergraduate programs. Visa restrictions will also stop international students from starting graduate programs in the fall. AC members noted that stoppages in laboratory and fieldwork will disproportionately impact early-career scientists who likely have less data to analyze, which hurts their ability to publish papers. To mitigate some of these impacts, the group suggested that NSF fund post-baccalaureate programs for recent graduates and offer increased flexibility for early-career scientists and postdocs. They also suggested that NSF support programs to enhance undergraduate research, noting that universities can use the suspension of field and laboratory experience programs to build undergraduates’ quantitative skills.

For more details on the NSF-wide impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, see our companion post about the May National Science Board meeting.

Switch to No-Deadlines

Overall, the BIO directorate reports a decrease in proposal submissions since the switch to no-deadlines for applications to its core programs in fall 2018 and a subsequent increase in grant application success rates. NSF’s Geosciences Directorate also experienced a significant decline in the number of proposal submissions when it switched to no-deadlines in 2015.

A subcommittee of AC members, other representatives of the scientific community and NSF staff compiled a set of metrics and a data set to understand the impacts of the switch to no-deadline on the composition BIO grantees. So far, a comparison of data from fiscal years 2018 and 2019 shows that the demographics of grantees in terms of career stage, institution and gender and ethnicity diversity does not indicate that these demographics have changed in any significant way. Collaboration in BIO grants, as measured by the number of PIs on a proposal did not change either. BIO staff can view these statistics in real-time and they plan to continuously monitor them to understand the impact of NSF policy changes, as well as larger events like the coronavirus pandemic. BIO wants to make some version of this data available to the public for their understanding and analysis.

In 2018, BIO received 4,767 grant applications and funded 1,192 projects resulting in a 25% success rate. Meanwhile, in 2019, BIO had a 34% success rate, with 3,115 applications. Success rates varied by divisions of BIO — the success rate for the Division of Environmental Biology increased from 23.4% in 2018 to 25.2% in 2019. Decision times, grant duration and average grant size remained relatively steady.

Long-Term Ecological Research

The BIO AC approved the charge for a decadal review of the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network. A subcommittee of the AC will complete a high-level review of the LTERs at the network level, not the individual site level. Members of the advisory committees for the Geosciences Directorate and the Polar Program office will be consulted as part of this study. LTER scientists will also contribute a self-study to the review. BIO AC member and ESA Vice President for Science Diane Pataki will be the AC’s liaison to the LTER subcommittee.

BIO AC members asked that the LTERs review and consider how to meaningfully involve communities in LTER research and opportunities for LTERs to study viruses, fungi and microbes.

Other BIO Updates:

  • Simon Malcomber is now serving as the Division of Environmental Biology (DEB) deputy director. Dr. Malcomber is a former NSF rotator – he is now a permanent NSF employee.
  • Tornow noted that the directorate has received a healthy response to BIO integration institutes solicitation. NSF is currently reviewing applications and hopefully will be able to share further updates during the next AC meeting.

Header photo by Erika Zambello/LTER.