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Status Report on NSF's Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Grants (AAG) Program

Friday, September 27, 2013 - 12:12

Here's an update from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Astronomical Sciences (AST) on the Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Grants (AAG) program.

FY 2013 Review Results
In fiscal year 2013 (FY 2013), running from October 2012 through September 2013, the final budget allocated to the AAG) program was $42.4 million, compared to $44.5 million in FY 2012. The FY 2013 allocation was slightly larger than expected a few months ago, and was achieved by obtaining some unplanned co-funding for other programs and then by transferring all remaining AST reserve funds into AAG late in the fiscal year. As a result awards were made to a total of 90 projects out of 637 proposed. Counting the multiple proposals in collaborative projects, 112 proposals were funded primarily from AAG, while co-funding was provided to another six proposals in other programs. The funding rate was 14% per submitted project and 15% per submitted proposal. These rates were quite similar to those seen in FY 2012.

This year, AST systematically queried proposers regarding possible budget reductions that would not impact the scientific scope of a proposal; such reductions may be relatively minor because of reductions in travel costs, or may be substantial in cases where a student, postdoc, or senior researcher had received separate funding after the NSF proposal was submitted. The savings made in response to these requests amounted to several million dollars, and we are grateful to the investigators who re-examined their budgets diligently and thus enabled AST to fund 10-20 more AAG proposals than would have been possible otherwise.

Unfortunately, AAG awards were made quite late in FY 2013. The Congressional appropriation for NSF was not passed until midway through the fiscal year; after the appropriation, it takes several months for NSF to construct a plan for the year and then have it reviewed and approved by Congress. Thus it was not possible to begin making AAG awards until the full NSF spending plan had been approved. Since the FY 2014 federal budget is in a high state of uncertainty, the community should not be surprised if undesirable award delays occur in FY 2014 as well.

FY 2014 and Beyond
The FY 2014 deadline for receipt of AAG proposals is 15 November 2013, at 5:00 pm local time in the proposer’s time zone. Potential proposers are urged to note a significant change in the definition of NSF’s two merit review criteria. Specifically, Broader Impacts have been redefined to include only “the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.” For descriptions of the merit-review criteria, proposers should consult the NSF Grant Proposal Guide (GPG), available on the Grant Proposal page, specifically noting the definitions on Merit Review in Section III.A of the GPG. Merit-review panels will be instructed in the new definitions of the review criteria, and proposers who follow the previous rules may find their proposals to be downgraded significantly because of deficiencies in addressing the present Broader Impacts criterion.

Beyond FY 2014, we are concerned about the ability of the merit-review process to identify the very best scientific proposals in a situation where funding rates may approach 10% or less, against a desired funding rate of at least 20%. Given a fixed or declining AAG budget over the next several years, the only mechanisms to increase the funding rate are those that (1) decrease the number of proposals received, or (2) decrease the funding per proposal. Other divisions at NSF already are taking steps to address their low funding rates in a variety of ways, such as capping summer salaries, limiting the number of proposals that may be submitted by individual investigators, reducing the frequency of proposal calls, and implementing two-stage proposal processes. The community should expect that significant changes in AAG may be implemented within the next year or two; the changes will depend on overall funding levels for NSF and AST, as well as on AST’s ability to respond to the divestment recommendations made by the Portfolio Review Committee in 2012.

James S. Ulvestad
Division Director
National Science Foundation
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