How do you get on an NSF panel?

Oct 11 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

An anonymous commenter asked about getting on a panel in this morning's post.

Just curious, how do you get invited to be on a panel? Did you sign up at one point? I am an NSF-funded scientist, but have never been asked to serve on a panel.

It made me realize that this is something I've never really talked about, specifically. The short answer?

Ask.

When I was a wee lad and new to this whole tenure track thing, I realized that it would make a lot of sense for me to get on an NSF panel and see how the sausage is made. I had grown up in the funding system of another country, and as such, didn't have the feel for NSF that I should have.

I asked the very question that Anon is positing above to several colleagues and they all told me to call up a PO and tell them I was interested. At the time, this was an incredibly terrifying concept, but I did as I was told and in the next round I was asked. Since then, I have put other people's names in the proverbial "hat" and they have also been asked. This includes postdocs, for those of you postdocs out there who want a jump on things.

Is it really that simple? Yes. POs spend a lot of time and energy trying to fill out there panels, finding the right mix of career stages, gender, academic background, ets., etc. More than half of the people they ask ignore them and probably another 60% - 70% of those that respond decline. Being on a panel is a huge amount of work, so it's not exactly something you just jump on. For that reason it is difficult to fill the room with able-bodied panelists who you can count on to do the work. If someone calls you up and says "I would really love to be on a panel." that person is going on the list for the next round.

Unlike NIH, NSF really does try an incorporate early career stage people into the decision making process. For all of you out there wondering about the process and what the life and times of a panelist are, take advantage of this. It was extremely helpful for me and I have received similar feedback from others who have been early-career people on panels.

Pick up the phone.

13 responses so far

  • BugDoc says:

    You can also do this with other foundations, like the American Heart Association, ACS, etc. I often recommend outstanding junior colleagues who would like to get some review experience. The POs are grateful to get recommendations.

  • Frank Olken says:

    Speaking as a former NSF program director I can be more specific about
    volunteering for NSF panels.

    Use the "Search Awards" on the NSF page to find awards on topics of interest.
    The award abstracts contain the name of the NSF program director.

    Send email (not phone) message to the NSF PD with subject line: Volunteer Panelist for subject area ....

    State in the email what topics you are interested in. Include a copy of your c.v.

    Panels are usually held 2-4 months after solicitation deadlines.
    New panelists are not usually placed on panels for large size solicitations.

    Frank Olken

  • Luna says:

    A quick question -- when you volunteered to be on a panel, did you already have NSF funding? Is that a requirement?

  • Frank Olken says:

    Some additional comments.

    In the computing directorate panels usually run 2 days, sometimes only
    one day if the number of proposals is a dozen or less.

    In the computing directorate it is common to ask panelists to review 8
    proposals each. You will also likely be asked to write two panel summaries
    at the panel each summarizing the discussion of a proposal at the panel.

    Panelists are asked to submit their reviews 2 or 3 days before the panel
    meets.

    Ideally, panelists will write reviews that are 2 pages long.

    NSF will buy airline tickets, and pay a per diem allowance to cover misc. travel,
    hotel, and meals.

    Frank Olken

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Luna - No, and that is why it was so helpful to see the process. I have also volunteered others who have not had NSF funding. In fact, if I do the spring panel it will be my first as an NSF-funded PI.

    BugDoc and Frank - thanks for the helpful points.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    In the computing directorate it is common to ask panelists to review 8
    proposals each. You will also likely be asked to write two panel summaries
    at the panel each summarizing the discussion of a proposal at the panel.

    BIO has a higher panel reviewer burden, by almost double. As one might expect, that also doubles the number of summaries to write.

    However, we are headed into uncharted territory with BIO this round, since the DEB and IOS sections have gone to the preproposal format. It is not clear what the load will be.

  • Frank Olken says:

    No, you need not have NSF funding to serve on a panel. The primary requirement
    is that you have expertise (usually publications) in the topics of the proposals
    being considered by the panel.

    However, for Early Faculty Career Panels, it is common for NSF to seek panelists who either already have a CAREER award or already have tenure. For panels considering large proposals, Expedition proposals, or Center proposals it is common for NSF program directors to seek more senior researchers or faculty.

    Panelists may come from academia, government or industrial labs, industry, etc.
    Most panelists are sought from within the U.S. but sometimes NSF will recruit
    panelists from Canada, Mexico, or the UK for special expertise or to avoid
    conflict-of-interest issues.

    Researchers supported by NSF are usually asked to serve on panels once a year
    (in their subject area).

    Frank Olken

  • odyssey says:

    Researchers supported by NSF are usually asked to serve on panels once a year
    (in their subject area).

    Frank, that might be true in the Directorate you served in, but that's certainly not what I've seen at BIO.

  • Frank Olken says:

    Serving on an NSF panel is the best way to quickly learn how to write good NSF proposals. You will get to read several proposals and listen to the discussion of
    how they are evaluated.

    Note that, unlike NIH, NSF panels only advise NSF program directors about which
    proposals to fund. Usually, the panel will recommend more proposals than the budget will support. NSF program directors do not always fund the highest ranked proposals for various reasons - to achieve diversity in research topics, geographic diversity, etc.

  • ianqui says:

    Unlike NIH, NSF really does try an incorporate early career stage people into the decision making process. (And also, Frank Olken's comments.)

    It sounds to me like the experience may vary depending on your directorate. I've been on a panel in SBE for 2 years now, and we commit to a 3 year term and meet 2x a year (November and April). I usually have 9-10 proposals that I have to write a review for and 8-9 more than I have to write the panel summary for. On each round, my panel has 100+ applications (for a ridiculously small amount of money, considering that we're in SBE).

    My PO does not like to put untenured people on the panel due to the large workload. So, I had a CAREER grant, but I didn't get asked to serve until (pretty much the minute) after I got tenure. I'm sure my POs would like to have people volunteering themselves, but they also get names by suggestions that current panelists give. We have pretty strong feelings about what kinds of holes need to be filled in terms of expertise, so we often suggest people who can complements the strengths that are already on the panel.

  • Brooksphd says:

    What about Admin like me :)

    I'm published, not directly funded though :(

  • odyssey says:

    Brooks,
    Can't hurt to ask. And certainly at BIO funding is not necessary.

  • Nick says:

    Frank,

    In the four times I've served on CISE panels, my review load has been 12, 12, 15, and 9 proposals - this last on a quite small panel with only 18 proposals; your experience with the directorate may be atypical.

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