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National Science Foundation CAREER Program Workshop Florida State University April 20, 2011. Agenda Introduction Overview of program Identifying the correct NSF program to target your proposal to Required elements of the proposal Crafting the proposal The NSF peer review process

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National Science Foundation CAREER Program Workshop

Florida State University

April 20, 2011



  • Introduction
  • Overview of program
  • Identifying the correct NSF program to target your proposal to
  • Required elements of the proposal
  • Crafting the proposal
  • The NSF peer review process
  • Common problems with noncompetitive proposals and “near misses”
  • Resources available at FSU
  • Panel of current FSU CAREER awardees
  • Wrap up


Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program

New NSF CAREER Program Solicitation



CAREER: The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a Foundation-wide activity that offers the National Science Foundation\'s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. Such activities should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.


PECASE: Each year NSF selects nominees for the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) from among the most meritorious recent CAREER awardees. Selection for this award is based on two important criteria:  1) innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology that is relevant to the mission of the sponsoring organization or agency, and 2) community service demonstrated through scientific leadership, education or community outreach. At NSF, up to twenty nominees for this award are selected each year from among the PECASE-eligible CAREER awardees who are most likely to become the leaders of academic research and education in the twenty-first century. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy makes the final selection and announcement of the awardees.


Full proposal deadlines (due by 5 PM proposer’s local time)

  • NOTE: FSU’s 3 day rule (
  • July 25, 2011
  • Directorate: Biological Sciences (BIO)
  • Directorate: Computer & Information Science & Engineering (CISE)
  • Directorate: Education & Human Resources (EHR)
  • Office of Cyberinfrastructure(OCI)
  • July 26, 2011
  • Directorate: Engineering (ENG)

Full proposal deadlines (due by 5 PM proposer’s local time)

  • NOTE: FSU’s 3 day rule (
  • July 27, 2011
  • Directorate: Geosciences (GEO)
  • Directorate: Mathematical & Physical Sciences
  • Directorate: Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences (SBE)
  • Office of Polar Programs (OPP)

PI Limit:

A Principal Investigator may submit only one CAREER proposal per annual competition. In addition, a Principal Investigator may not participate in more than three CAREER competitions. Proposals that are not reviewed (i.e., are withdrawn before review or are returned without review) do not count toward the three-competition limit.


By the Directorate\'s deadline for submission of CAREER proposals, proposers must meet all of the following eligibility requirements: Hold a doctoral degree by the deadline date in a field supported by NSF;

Be untenured until October 1 following the deadline; and

Have not previously received a CAREER award (prior or concurrent Federal support for other types of awards or for non-duplicative research does not preclude eligibility);


By October 1st following the deadline for submission of CAREER proposals: Be employed in a tenure-track (or tenure-track-equivalent) position as an assistant professor (or equivalent title) at an accredited institution located in the U.S., its territories, or possessions, or the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, that awards degrees in a field supported by NSF;


Be employed in a tenure-track position (or tenure-track-equivalent position) as an assistant professor (or equivalent title) at an organization located in the U.S., its territories or possessions, or the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, that is a non-profit, non-degree-granting organization such as a museum, observatory, or research lab.


Tenure-Track Equivalency - For a position to be considered a tenure-track-equivalent position, it must meet all of the following requirements: (1) the employing department or organization does not offer tenure-track positions to any new hires; (2) the employee is engaged in research in an area of science or engineering supported by NSF; (3) the employee has a continuing appointment that is expected to last the five years of the grant; (4) the appointment has substantial educational responsibilities; and (5) the proposed project relates to the employee\'s career goals and job responsibilities as well as to the goals of the department or organization.

Unit letter of support would attest to the equivalency


The minimum CAREER award size is $400,000 for a five-year period for all directorates except for the Directorate of Biological Sciences (BIO) and the Office of Polar Programs (OPP). For proposals submitted to BIO and OPP, the minimum award size is $500,000 over five years. [FSU awards have ranged from $400,000 to ~$600,000]. Before preparing a CAREER proposal, PIs are strongly encouraged to contact their disciplinary program director or the appropriate CAREER contact to discuss budget requests for their proposed CAREER activities, and typical funding levels for their discipline. Many programs and Directorates prefer to make more awards by funding CAREER proposals closer to the minimum award size. Proposers should also review the list of recent CAREER awards made in their discipline for guidance on average award size. A list of CAREER Division/Directorate Contacts can be found on the CAREER web page at


Anticipated Funding Amount: $220,000,000 per year to new and continuing CAREER awards.

Estimated Number of Awards: 600 per year


NSF has a hierarchical organizational structure




Biological Sciences

Molecular & Cellular Biosciences

Biomolecular Dynamics, Structure & Function

Cellular Processes

Genetic Mechanisms

Networks and Regulation

Biological Infrastructure

Integrative Organismal Systems

Environmental Biology

Emerging Frontiers


Depending on your discipline, there may be several NSF divisions that your proposal could be peer reviewed. Within a division there may be multiple programs. How do you choose the most appropriate ?



NSF award search engine

  • String search by
  • Disciplinary program
  • Key words/phrases
  • PI
  • Institution
  • Will provide details about award size and project summary

Contact program officers at NSF and pitch ideas; visits to the Ballston, VA headquarters are welcome. FSU has a CRC program for faculty which supports trips to Federal agencies (Funding Agency Travel [FAT] Program ; provides up to $750 for trips)

Find out from the literature where workers in your area are obtaining funding. The ACKNOWLEDGMENTS sections of research papers will carry the grant/award number(s).

Ask your colleagues and mentors for advice. Many have served on NSF panels.


After the deadline date, program officers within a division meet.

  • Typically, a proposal will be assigned to a single program for review.
  • Sometimes proposals will be co-reviewed by two programs within the same division.
  • Rarely, a proposal will be co-reviewed by two programs in different divisions.
  • Co-reviewed proposals are mixed blessings.
  • You have to please and convince two panels
  • Costs can be split between two programs

Must conform to the NSF Grant Proposal Guide (GPG)

  • Coversheet
  • Indicate target program
  • Title of project must begin with “CAREER:”
  • Project Summary
  • Summarize the research and education objectives, and plans for the integration of education and research activities.
  • The Project Summary must clearly address in separate statements how the proposal meets both the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact review criteria.
  • Project Summary (Probably the single most critical part of the proposal!)

Project Description

  • The Project Description section should contain a well-argued and specific proposal for activities that will, over a 5-year period, build a firm foundation for a lifetime of contributions to research and education in the context of the PI\'s organization. The Project Description may not exceed 15 pages. Should contain the following:
  • Description of the proposed research project, including preliminary supporting data where appropriate, specific objectives, methods and procedures to be used, and expected significance of the results;
  • Description of the proposed educational activities, including plans to evaluate their impact on students and other participants;
  • Description of how the research and educational activities are integrated with one another
  • Results of prior NSF support, if applicable.
  • More when we talk about crafting the proposal.

References Cited

  • Biographical Sketch of Principal Investigator
  • Supplementary Documentation
  • Departmental Letter*
  • Letters of Collaboration
  • Postdoctoral Researcher Mentoring Plan (relatively new)*
  • Data Management Plan (new 2011)*

*The Departmental Letter should be no more than 2 pages in length, and include the department head\'s name and title, below the signature. The letter should contain the following elements:

  • An indication that the PI\'s proposed CAREER research and education activities are supported by and integrated into the educational and research goals of the department and the organization, and that the department is committed to the support and professional development of the PI;
  • A description of a) the relationship between the CAREER project, the PI\'s career goals and job responsibilities, and the goals of his/her department/organization, and b) the ways in which the department head (or equivalent) will ensure the appropriate mentoring of the PI, in the context of the PI\'s career development and his/her efforts to integrate research and education throughout the period of the award and beyond; and
  • A statement to the effect that the PI is eligible for the CAREER program.

Postdoctoral Researcher Mentoring Plan

  • • Proposals that include funding to support postdoctoral researchers must include a description of the mentoring activities that will be provided for such individuals (one page).
  • • Proposed mentoring activities will be evaluated as part of the merit review process, under NSF’s broader impacts merit review criterion.
  • • Mentoring activities may include:
  • - Providing career counseling, training in the preparation of grant proposals, or training in responsible professional practices
  • - Developing publications and presentations
  • - Offering guidance on techniques to improve teaching and mentoring skills
  • Providing counseling on how to effectively collaborate with researchers from diverse backgrounds and disciplinary areas
  • (from

Data Management Plan

• Policy requires awardees to share their data within a reasonable length of time, so long as the cost is modest.

• Proposal preparation requirements stipulate that the project description should provide: “…a clear description of experimental methods and procedures and plans for preservation, documentation, and sharing of data, samples, physical collections, curriculum materials and other related research and education products”



Data Management Plan

• NSF will require that all proposals include a data management plan in the form of a supplemental document (maximum of 2-pages)

– This supplement should describe how the proposal will conform to NSF policy on the dissemination and sharing of research results.

– A valid Data Management Plan may include only the statement that no detailed plan is needed, as long as the statement is accompanied by a clear justification.

– The Data Management Plan will be reviewed under the Intellectual Merit or Broader Impacts criterion or both, as appropriate for the scientific community of relevance.

• Data management requirements and plans specific to the Directorate, Office, Division, Program, or other NSF unit, as well as a set of FAQs will be consolidated and available on a single NSF website at:


Budget Issues

  • GPG dictates allowable costs; some unique characteristics of CAREER
  • Inclusion of voluntary committed cost-sharing is not allowed
  • Support of OTHER SENIOR PERSONNEL is prohibited
  • Budget justification (no more than 3 pages)

Crafting the proposal



First principles

  • Do not put this off to the last minute! Your department, college and Sponsored Research Services will have to process the proposal (re: FSU’s 3 working day rule).
  • Have your colleagues vet the proposal.
  • Pay particular attention to NSF’s review criteria as well as to the unique features of the CAREER program.
  • Adhere to guidelines- page length, font size/density, margins etc.
  • I generally finish my proposals 4-5 weeks in advance and then return to them 2 weeks before the target date.

Defining the problem

  • Most CAREER proposals are derived from doctoral or postdoctoral research effort. Some postdoctoral mentors forbid transfer of projects.
  • It is essential to define a problem that provides the foundation for a longer term effort (that is, your CAREER).
  • Confirmatory efforts that break little new ground should be avoided.
  • “Transformative Research” is the buzz phrase- "Transformative research is ... research driven by ideas that stand a reasonable chance of radically changing our understanding of an important existing scientific concept or leading to the creation of a new paradigm or field of science. Such research also is characterized by its challenge to current understanding or its pathway to new frontiers (National Science Board)."

Defining the problem cont.

  • The problem should be hypothesis driven- What is the question? What is the rationale for asking this question? (Obviously, not appropriate in many disciplinary areas)
  • Proposed research should be “novel, innovative, bold, transformative vs. incremental”. (MJ Pazzani, VPR, Rutgers)

NSF Criterion 1- What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?

  • How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields?
  • How well qualified is the proposer (individual or team) to conduct the project? (If appropriate, the reviewer will comment on the quality of prior work.)
  • To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?
  • How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity?
  • Is there sufficient access to resources?

NSF Criterion 2- What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?

  • How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning?
  • How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)?
  • To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships?

NSF Criterion 2- cont

  • Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding?
  • What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?
  • Mentoring activities provided to postdoctoral researchers supported on the project will be evaluated under the Broader Impacts criterion.
  • There are special considerations in evaluating NSF CAREER proposals (to be discussed later).

Project Summary

  • Single page which tilts the mindset of the reader. It must address the following issues:
  • What is the research problem?
  • Why is this problem important?
  • How will you investigate the problem?
  • What will be the impact of your research?
  • How does the research address the intellectual merit and broader impact criteria (must be specifically mentioned)
  • How will research and educational plans be integrated into the unique micro-context of your university?
  • How does the proposed effort fit into your long term career plans?

Project Description (Ellington’s tried and proven structure)

Results from Prior NSF Support

Comments and Responses to Reviewers

Research Plan

General Introduction

List of (Experimental) Objectives

Objective 1: ----------------------------

I. Hypothesis

II. Background & Rationale (include preliminary data)

III. Methods & Procedures

IV. Anticipated Outcomes

V. Potential Pitfalls and Problems


Objective 2, Objective 3…….

Summary of overall experimental plan, anticipated outcomes, how the effort will move the field forward and how this work fits into your future research plans; should emphasize Intellectual Merit issues

(Your narrative should provide short snappy summary statements that might be paraphrased in a proposal review)


Education Plan

For CAREER proposals you can attempt to interleaf your educational plan into the Research Plan narrative. However, there is a danger that you might muddy the waters.

Mission: The Florida State University preserves, expands, and disseminates knowledge in the sciences, technology, arts, humanities, and professions, while embracing a philosophy of learning strongly rooted in the traditions of the liberal arts. The University is dedicated to excellence in teaching, research, creative endeavors, and service. The University strives to instill the strength, skill, and character essential for lifelong learning, personal responsibility, and sustained achievement within a community that fosters free inquiry and embraces diversity.


The plan:

  • Your teaching philosophy
  • Components
  • Learning goals
  • Assessment
  • Innovative, novel and impactful
  • Integration of the research and teaching plans
  • Section that specifically addresses criterion 2 issues; examples
  • Undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral training
  • Creation of research resources
  • Establishment of unique collaborations
  • Public outreach
  • Include a realistic timeline

A final point….

  • Proof of concept is critical
  • Can be in the form of prior published work or preliminary data
  • Demonstrates that the project is feasible and that you have the capability to do the work or at least are on the right track
  • Avoid presentation of copious amounts of preliminary data………

The NSF peer review process



See the overall process

  • The program officer identifies 5-8 ad hoc reviewers.
  • The program officer develops a panel of reviewers who will attend a panel meeting at NSF; each proposal is assigned a primary panelist, secondary panelist and “reader” panelist.
  • Reviews for ad hoc reviewers and panelists are electronic (on FASTLANE); typically each panelist will receive 10-15 proposals to review (half as primary) as well as another group of 5-8 to read only
  • Reviewers are asked to rate each proposal (Ex, VG, G, Fair, Poor) and then provide a justification based on both criteria

5) After panelists have uploaded their reviews, they will have access to the reviews of the ad hoc reviewers and those of the other panelist

  • 6) The panel usually meets ~3 months after the target date; each proposal is treated as follows:
  • Primary gives his/her evaluation and rating
  • Secondary gives his/her evaluation rating and then summarizes the ad hoc reviews
  • There is general discussion about the proposal and a rating is arrived at
  • Ratings- High Priority, Medium Priority, Low Priority, Not Competitive (done on a PowerPoint slide; relative position within a rating category is important)

The “reader” takes notes and then drafts a “Panel Summary” which describes the strengths and weaknesses of the proposal; this is designed to be a very constructive document

  • The primary and secondary must approve the panel summary
  • All of this is done electronically; each panel member has a PC
  • At the end of the panel there is a general discussion about repositioning proposals in the rating categories as well as shifting of some to different categories
  • 7) The program officer is not required to follow all the recommendations of the panel. He/she can take into account existing funding of the PI, geographic issues, stage of career of the PI, thematic imperatives of the Foundation etc
  • 8) The program officer then will make recommendations up the chain of command for awarding or declining a proposal
  • 9) Notification is electronic, usually within 2 months of the panel

Final considerations about the peer review process

  • Depending on the program, primary and secondary panelists are rarely experts in your area
  • This means that your narrative must provide sufficient background detail to set the stage for description of the project and the integration of the educational component
  • Ad hoc reviewers may be experts in your area
  • However, return of ad hoc reviews and the quality of such reviews is highly variable
  • Often, the most detailed and careful reviews are from the primary and secondary

Common problems with noncompetitive proposals and “near misses”

(derived, in part, from a presentation by Dr. M. J. Pazzani, VP for Research and Graduate and Professional Education, Rutgers University)



Common problems with noncompetitive proposals

  • Problem not clearly articulated
  • Failure to identify goals and plan of attack
  • Many unrelated tasks
  • Failure to differentiate the proposed work from that of others
  • Emphasizing the lack of information about the research problem you are addressing (when, in fact, the reason why there is a lack of information is because the problem itself is not particularly important)
  • Poor page space planning (Pazzani says at least 60% of the project description should be devoted to the research plan)

Common problems with “near misses”

  • Solid but incremental work without a truly fresh perspective
  • Lack of innovation; proposed effort is similar to your prior published work
  • Lack of compelling evidence that the research plan will succeed
  • Important within a narrow subfield, but does not make a convincing case that the work is important in a broader context
  • Education plan is uninspiring and lacks assessment mechanism(s)
  • Missing timeline.

Resources Available at FSU

  • Your colleagues
  • FSU CAREER website
  • Current and Past FSU CAREER awardees
  • NSF person at Sponsored Research Services (Dale Langevin [email protected])
  • Ross Ellington ([email protected])