Tips and Key Notes for Writing Annual Reports! (With advice during the time of COVID-19)

NSF Implementation of OMB Memorandum M-20-17

Imagine this experience: You’ve received your first (or another) NSF award and all is going well so far. Then, at 9 months in, you receive an automated notice from NSF saying: “Your annual report for NSF award IOS-1234567 is now due.” Surprised, and perhaps a bit panicked, you wonder: what should I write about and why so soon?

This post is meant to demystify the process of preparing annual reports for NSF. These tips are provided to help guide your report; however, be sure to also check the information about annual reporting in the PAPPG 19-1. (And remember the PAPPG is updated almost every year, with a new version to go into effect for proposals submitted after June 1, 2020).

Purpose of the annual progress report: The annual report allows your managing Program Director (PD) to check on the progress of the research, identify exciting new science, learn about potential hurdles, and make sure that all is on track. NSF also extracts critical metrics from the annual reports – and this is extremely important information to demonstrate to Congress and the public the great value of taxpayer investment in NSF science and education.

Timeline for submission: The annual report is requested 90 days early to allow NSF PDs time to review the report, request changes if necessary and then process an approval. Once the award anniversary date has passed, you will get another notice warning you that the annual report is overdue and an automatic block will prevent any actions or requests such as NSF-approved no cost extensions, continuing grant increments and new awards including supplements for any PI or co-PI on your award. So, getting started early helps everyone.

Key Notes for Preparing the Annual Report: Research.gov provides government-wideMusical notes instructions that need to be followed. Here we offer advice about what makes a great annual report, and how to document your progress in both the research and broader impact activities.

Section 1: Accomplishments

  • The first section requests a statement of your major goals. These goals should not change year to year (unless you have an approved change of scope). Provide a clear explanation of the overarching purpose of the project and itemize each specific aim or objective.
  • For the rest of the report, it helps to align your activities, results and key outcomes back to the original goals and aims.
  • Yes, NSF reads the annual report! Remember, your reviewing PD is a scientist with expertise often in your area of research. Provide clear results, supportive figures and remember we love to hear about new discoveries in advance of publication! Point us in the direction you are going.
  • Use the download section for PDFs of figures or images to support your discussion of results or broader impacts. Manuscripts in preparation can be placed here as well! Many PDs are excited to see what is coming and we can then remind you to inform us when the paper is accepted for publication.
  • Remember to include your broader impacts activities! Absence of this information is one of the most frequent reasons a report may be returned to you.

Section 2: Products

  • Keep in mind that all publications derived from research on the award must include Federal acknowledgement.
  • Be sure to use the reporting function with full citation (even if you listed publications in the Accomplishments section). Only fully reported products, with DOI included, are counted. Inaccurate product reporting is another reason a report may be returned to the PI.
  • Include all products including patents pending or awarded, conference reports, book chapters, web pages, research resources and any other searchable products.

Section 3: Participants

  • All individuals who worked on the project should be entered in the searchable section, even if they did not receive funding. These participants do not need to have been listed in the original proposal, but any contribution should be recorded here.
  • Provide brief information about each participant’s role to help explain the workflow.

Section 4. Impacts

  • This is another great place to highlight the outcomes of your post-doc or student training, broader impacts activities, data products and release.
  • New collaborations that spring from the project also are good examples of impacts.

Section 5. Changes

  • Include information about any delays in budget expenditure. PDs have access to real time budget information, so it is helpful to hear about problems and plans for mitigation in the project report.
  • Let PDs know about things that might have led to a slowdown in progress on the research, things happen that are beyond your control and keeping a record of that can help make the case for a no-cost extension in the future.
  • Any changes in scope for the project should be included here, including changes in objectives, impending personnel changes, or scientific issues that are delaying the project.

What about the final report? Remember that a final report is just the last annual report, and it should not be considered a cumulative summary of progress; therefore, all the tips above also apply.

And don’t forget the Project Outcomes Report! This outcomes report is a federal requirement and is not reviewed or approved by NSF. However, the outcomes report must be completed before closing your award. Keep in mind this outcomes report should give the public a full understanding of your science and its impact!

Advice during the time of COVID-19: NSF has established a website that is updated regularly with information on how NSF is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, nsf.gov/coronavirus. We encourage you to review the relevant documents on this site and to check it periodically for updates.

Guidance relevant to annual and final reports has been included in the NSF Implementation of OMB Memorandum M-20-17 document. As part of that guidance, please note that the extension for submission of project reports due between March 1 and April 30, 2020 is for 30 days. For any period beyond that date, you should check back on the NSF coronavirus site for further guidance.

Your managing program officer can answer any questions!