Once the preliminary proposals arrive, both the administrative staff and program directors spring into action. The staff check the preliminary proposals for compliance with the submission instructions and the program directors read the batch of preliminary proposals submitted to their program to determine whether it is the best intellectual or conceptual fit. This first read by the program directors is also the first chance to become acquainted with the science the PIs have submitted to the program in this round. If in their opinion a preliminary proposal does not fit the science considered by their program the Program Director can ask another program to look at it for possible transfer.
There is myth that proposals are moved among programs because a Program Director does not like the proposal. In actuality, Program Directors move a proposal so it will get a better quality review than it could get in the program it was originally submitted to. Reviewing context is the main issue here! Perhaps the other program has more expertise in that area or has other proposals similar to the one in question. Program directors frequently use two issues to make a determination about the best program fit: 1) What does the PI propose to do? That is what are the specific aims and the general approaches? 2) Why does the PI want to accomplish those aims? That is, what is the rationale for the research or the intellectual framework? Generally, the research questions being considered determine program assignment, not the specific methods employed. For example, molecular methods can be found in every program within IOS! Use of molecular techniques would do little to identify an appropriate program.
All the programs in IOS share some overlap at the edges with other programs in IOS, programs in other divisions and in some cases programs in other directorates. This small overlap avoids having proposals end up without a program to review them, as long as the proposal is appropriate for NSF. At any given time, the Program Directors administering the programs have information about the breadth of what is submitted and reviewed by their program both currently and historically. This information is not available to a scientist on the outside trying to decide where to submit using the program descriptions and the award search. As new areas of science emerge Program Directors also know where those similar proposals are being reviewed. Putting like things together serves the submitting scientists by giving them better feedback from reviewers with the most relevant expertise and serves the American taxpaying public by allowing Program Directors to maintain better stewardship of program funds.
Across IOS less than 10% of the preliminary proposals are moved between programs, suggesting that most submitting scientists understand the program descriptions and know where to submit. Those who are new to the process can take advantage of NSF’s culture that values communication with the community to send a short summary of the project to a program director ahead of time to get advice about program fit. Program directors spend a lot of November, December and early January answering emails and phone calls with pre-submission questions such as this.
Other Kinds of Transfers
Transfers between program directors within the same program often occur shortly after submission as Fastlane assigns the proposals to a “lead” program director indicated in the system, and that “lead” person then divides them up between all the program directors working in the program. Conflicts of interest and expertise among the program directors within the program are taken into account. This is a normal part of the process and necessary to balance the workload.
Both preliminary and full proposals can also be transferred between program directors later in the process. In this case the transfer is usually for technical reasons such as when a rotating program director returns to his/her home institution and the proposals need to be transferred to the new incoming rotator. A proposal might also be transferred because a Program Director has a newly identified conflict of interest due to a new collaboration, or change in other professional role.
As always, don’t hesitate to contact your Program Director if you have questions!