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Where To Submit Potentially Transformative Research Proposals

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Credit: Eric J. Heller, Harvard University

All NSF programs encourage and support potentially transformative research proposals.

NSF programs are announced through program announcements or solicitations, and are managed by one or more NSF divisions. Programs can be found through the NSF webpage. As indicated above, the revised Intellectual Merit Review criterion explicitly references potentially transformative concepts as a review consideration for all proposals. NSF program officers are requested to identify potentially transformative research proposals for funding in all programs. NSF program officers are also expected to provide guidance to panelists and ad hoc reviewers to identify potentially transformative research proposals in their review.

In addition to encouraging the submission of proposals for transformative research through all NSF programs, NSF supports specific investment areas, special mechanisms, and new methodologies of identifying and funding potentially transformative research.

NSF encourages potentially transformative research proposals in specific Investment Areas.

The Annual NSF Budget to Congress identifies investment areas that are notable for being interdisciplinary, supported by numerous NSF directorates, and intended to have transformative impact across science and engineering fields. The investment areas may result in a single program, for example, Cyber-enabled Discovery and Innovation (CDI) or may provide a theme for support in numerous programs (for example, Climate Research and the National Nanotechnology Initiative).

NSF has several special mechanisms to promote and support potentially transformative research.

In addition to the NSF programs and investment areas mentioned above, NSF has developed several additional mechanisms to promote and support potentially transformative research. These include:

  • Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER)

The EAGER funding mechanism can be used to support exploratory work in its early stages on untested, but potentially transformative, research ideas or approaches. This work could be considered especially "high risk-high payoff" in the sense that it, involves radically different approaches, applies new expertise, or engages novel disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives. Exploratory proposals may also be submitted directly to an NSF program. Principal Investigators (PIs) must contact the NSF program officer(s) whose expertise is most germane to the proposal topic prior to submission of an EAGER proposal to determine the appropriateness of the work for consideration under the EAGER mechanism. The EAGER mechanism should not be used for projects that are appropriate for submission as “regular” (i.e., non-EAGER) NSF proposals.

  • Special Creativity Extensions

A program officer may recommend the extension of funding for certain research grants beyond the initial period for which the grant was awarded for a period of up to two years. The objective of such extensions is to offer an extended opportunity to attack adventurous, “high-risk” opportunities in the same general research area, but not necessarily covered by the original/current proposal. Special Creativity Extensions are generally initiated by the NSF program officer based on progress during the first two years of a three-year grant; PIs will be informed of such action a year in advance of the expiration of the grant.

  • Accomplishment-based Renewal

The accomplishment based renewal is a special type of renewal proposal appropriate only for an investigator who has made significant contributions, over a number of years, in the area of research addressed by the proposal. Investigators are strongly urged to contact the cognizant program officer prior to developing a proposal using this format. In an accomplishment-based renewal, the project description is replaced by copies of no more than six reprints of publications resulting from the research supported by NSF (or research supported by other sources that is closely related to the NSF-supported research) during the preceding three- to five-year period. In addition, a brief (not to exceed four pages) summary of plans for the proposed support period must be submitted. All other information required for NSF proposal submission remains the same.

Development of new methodologies to promote and support potentially transformative research.

In addition to its existing programs and mechanisms as indicated above, NSF continues to experiment with innovative approaches to promote and identify potentially transformative research. In fact, in the FY2010 NSF budget request, each research division is provided funds explicitly to explore methodologies that help support transformative research.

The examples below illustrate some of the efforts being piloted across the foundation.

1. Focus on Identifying Potentially Transformative Research. Through discussions and training, NSF program officers and reviewers have an increased focus on identifying potentially transformative research. For example, in the multi-day program manager seminar for all new program officers, there are sessions on approaches to promote and identify potentially transformative research. Another example is the attention given to identifying potentially transformative research in the orientation session for review panels.

2. Modifications to Review Process. Several programs are experimenting with modifications in the review process to help identify potentially transformative research proposals. For example, in addition to a panel there may be a ’shadow panel.’ The shadow panel has the primary purpose of identifying potentially transformative research proposals. The results from both the panels then inform the program officers in making their funding recommendations. Another modification to the usual panel review process is called the ‘second-dimension’ approach. With this approach, a panel provides an assessment of potentially transformative research of the proposals. This assessment provides a ‘second-dimension’ in that it is independent of the panel’s comprehensive review of the proposal.

3. Emerging Transformational Areas of Research. NSF uses different mechanisms to identify emerging transformational areas of research and innovation. For example, the Office of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) in the Directorate for Engineering annually solicits ideas for transformational areas through a Dear Colleague letter to the community as well as through workshops, professional meetings and societies, and advisory committees. Based on this input, EFRI prioritizes the topics and calls for proposals in the selected areas through its program solicitation

4. Ideas Factory Sandpit. The Sandpit process has some unique features. Prior to the workshop, called a Sandpit, “mentors” are selected and serve as advisors during the Sandpit. The Sandpit participants identify grand challenges in the selected research area, and then develop approaches to address those challenges. Projects are selected for funding from among those emerging from the Sandpit. The “Ideas Factory Sandpit” on the topic of Synthetic Biology was conducted by NSF, and future Sandpits are anticipated.

5. Joint Funding. Some directorates, offices, or divisions provide joint support for potentially transformative research proposals that are recommended for funding by program officers. This joint funding emphasizes the importance of supporting potentially transformative research, while reducing the impact on program budgets of funding these proposals.