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University of Houston: What a drop in NSF proposals means for the country's rate of innovation

If there are fewer grant proposals, does that mean innovation has slowed? UH gets to the bottom of the question. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

A 17 percent drop in proposals over the past decade to the National Science Foundation may be a mixed blessing.

A consistently rising budget – and this is in billions of dollars – is the preferred method of keeping the number of funded proposals ever higher. But a dip in the number of proposals submitted in the first place can have a similar effect of increasing the number of funded proposals, since the pool of submissions is much smaller.

In an article for Science Magazine, author Jeffrey Mervis poses the question: Has there been a decline in grant-worthy ideas? In NSF’s biology sector, Mervis notes that “demand has tumbled by 50 percent over the decade and the chances of winning a grant have doubled, from 18 percent in 2011 to 36 percent in 2020.” NSF’s leadership suggests two possible reasons for this phenomenon.

Eliminating fixed deadlines

“Dear Colleague” letters went out to numerous directorates within the NSF notifying PIs that fixed deadlines for small projects ($500,000 and less) would be taken out of the equation. For instance, the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering’s letter read: “in order to allow principal investigators (PIs) more flexibility and to better facilitate interdisciplinary research across disciplines” deadlines would be eliminated. The letter goes on to state that by eliminating fixed deadlines, PIs will be free to think more creatively and collaboratively – without the added stress of a deadline.

Wouldn’t less stress mean more applications? This doesn’t seem to be the case. In one instance, according to another article in Science, proposals dropped when the program ceased annual deadlines and replaced them with rolling deadlines.

Reducing stress for grant reviewers

That article goes on to say that these changes alleviate the strain on the grant reviewers without lowering standards. James Olds, assistant director of the Directorate for Biological Sciences, anticipated that the NSF program managers would get somewhat of a break, and that the new policy would relieve university administrators who process the applications from being overwhelmed.

Other factors at play

“It is highly unlikely there was one specific reason for the decrease,” said David Schultz, assistant vice president for Sponsored Projects in the Office of Contracts and Grants at the University of Houston, “but rather multiple factors contributing over time. One potential cause is that many major research institutions are diversifying their funding sources away from NSF and into other federal agencies more aligned with their strategic areas of research interest, such as NIH, DOD, and DOE. The NIH has seen an 11 percent increase in proposals over the same period, from 49,592 in 2011 to 55,038 in 2020.”

Tenure

“Another component is the documented decrease in the number of tenured faculty across the nation. Generally tenured faculty are more research-focused, as their ability to obtain externally funded research is a major criterion for promotion and tenure,” said Schultz. “While this may lead to fewer proposals, it does encourage new tenure track faculty to focus more efforts on the higher likelihood of being awarded an NSF grant.”

The Big Idea

Some people work better and more efficiently when presented with a deadline. Could that be the reason fewer proposals are being turned in? In his article, Mervis, deliberates over whether the number of proposals means that the nation is innovating more slowly than before. But how could that be?

The National Science Board, NSF’s presidentially appointed oversight committee, is trying to get to the bottom of the issue so as to mitigate it. Olds stands by the decision to remove deadlines, pointing out that it should be the strength of the proposal not the threat of a deadline which motivates the research project.

Schultz sees a silver lining. “With fewer proposals being submitted to the NSF, the shift creates an opportunity for smaller, emerging universities to increase their proposal submission and success rates.”

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

With Clutch, connecting brands with creators has never been easier and more inclusive. Photo courtesy of Clutch

An app that originally launched on Houston college campuses has announced it's now live nationwide.

Clutch founders Madison Long and Simone May set out to make it easier for the younger generation to earn money with their skill sets. After launching a beta at local universities last fall, Clutch's digital marketplace is now live for others to join in.

The platform connects brands to its network of creators for reliable and authentic work — everything from social media management, video creation, video editing, content creation, graphic design projects, and more. With weekly payments to creators and an inclusive platform for users on both sides of the equation, Clutch aims to make digital collaboration easier and more reliable for everyone.

“We’re thrilled to bring our product to market to make sustainable, authentic lifestyles available to everyone through the creator economy," says May, CTO and co-founder of Clutch. "We’re honored to be part of the thriving innovation community here in Houston and get to bring more on-your-own-terms work opportunities to all creators and businesses through our platform.”

In its beta, Clutch facilitated collaborations for over 200 student creators and 50 brands — such as DIGITS and nama. The company is founded with a mission of "democratizing access to information and technology and elevating the next generation for all people," according to a news release from Clutch. In the beta, 75 percent of the creators were people of color and around half of the businesses were owned by women and people of color.

“As a Clutch Creator, I set my own pricing, schedule and services when collaborating on projects for brands,” says Cathy Syfert, a creator through Clutch. “Clutch Creators embrace the benefits of being a brand ambassador as we create content about the products we love, but do it on behalf of the brands to help the brands grow authentically."

The newly launched product has the following features:

  • Creator profile, where users can share their services, pricing, and skills and review inquiries from brands.
  • Curated matching from the Clutch admin team.
  • Collab initiation, where users can accept or reject incoming collab requests with brands.
  • Collab management — communication, timing, review cycles — all within the platform.
  • In-app payments with a weekly amount selected by the creators themselves.
  • Seamless cancellation for both brands and creators.
Clutch raised $1.2 million in seed funding from Precursor Ventures, Capital Factory, HearstLab, and more. Clutch was originally founded as Campus Concierge in 2021 and has gone through the DivInc Houston program at the Ion.

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch. Photo courtesy of Clutch

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