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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

 
 

This Houston staffing firm has tapped into tech to support the growing gig economy workforce. Photo via Getty Images

As the independent workforce continues to grow, a Houston-based company is aiming to connect these workers with companies that match their specific needs with a new digital platform.

FlexTek, a 14-year old recruiting and staffing company, launched a first gig site tailored to the needs of the individual worker. The platform, Workz360, is built to be able to manage projects, maintain quality control, and manage billing and year-end financial reporting.The company is also working to expanding the platform to provide infrastructure to assist independent workers with education, access to savings programs, tax compliance through vetted third-party CPA firms, and hopes in the future to assist with access to liability and medical insurance.

With a younger workforce and a shifting economy, the “gig economy,” which is another way to describe how people can earn a living as a 1099 worker, offers an alternative option to the corporate grind in a post-pandemic workscape. Chief Marketing Officer Bill Penczak of Workz360 calls this era “Gig 2.0,” and attributes the success of this type of workforce to how during the COVID-19 pandemic people learned how to work, and thrive in non-traditional work environments. The site also boasts the fact it won’t take a bite out of the worker’s pay, which could be an attractive sell for many since other sites can take up to 65 percent of profit.

“In the past few years, with the advent of gig job platforms, the Independent workers have been squeezed by gig work platforms taking a disproportionate amount of the workers’ income,” said FlexTek CEO and founder Stephen Morel in a news release. “As a result, there has been what we refer to as ‘pay padding,’ a phenomenon in which workers are raising their hourly or project rates to compensate for the bite taken by other platforms.

"Workz360 is designed to promote greater transparency, and we believe the net result will be for workers to thrive and companies to save money by using the platform,” he continues.

As the workforce has continued to change over the years, a third of the current U.S. workforce are independent workers according to FlexTek, workers have gained the ability to have more freedom where and how they work. Workz360 aims to cater to this workforce by believing in a simple mantra of treating your workers well.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about this, but we like the Southwest Airlines model,” Penczak tells InnovationMap. “Southwest Airlines treats their people very well, and as a result those employees treat the passengers really well. We believe the same thing holds true. If we can provide resources, and transparency, and not take a bite out of what the gig worker is charging, then we will get the best and the brightest people since they feel like they won’t be taken advantage of. We think there is an opportunity to be a little different and put the people first.”

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