New NSF Program Sidesteps External Peer Review

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

U.S. researchers with an unorthodox idea in two or more scientific fields now have the chance to bypass the normal peer-review process at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

A new program, offering grants of up to $1 million over 5 years, is the latest attempt by the agency to demonstrate its openness to out-of-the-box ideas. NSF and other federal research agencies have long been criticized for playing it safe. Despite pressure from Congress in recent years to support more so-called potentially transformative research, NSF officials have heretofore insisted that their entire portfolio is cutting-edge and that there's no need for a special program to fund unusual ideas.

But today NSF Director Subra Suresh unveiled a new initiative aimed at doing exactly that. It goes by the acronym CREATIV, which stands for Creative Research Awards for Transformative Interdisciplinary Ventures. And while the name may be hard to digest, researchers are likely to find its streamlined approach quite tasty.

The biggest difference is that proposals won't be judged by external review panels. Instead, researchers must win over NSF program managers. In fact, researchers must receive prior, written approval from at least two program managers before even submitting a proposal. But once that hurdle has been cleared, NSF promises to make a decision within 2 or 3 months. That's more than twice as fast as the usual turn-around time. Researchers from U.S. institutions can submit proposals in any area that NSF now funds, and there are no priority topics.

In an NSF-sponsored webcast, Suresh said that not every research proposal is right for CREATIV. He said NSF is looking for "unusually innovative, unconventional, high-risk, and interdisciplinary proposals without a recognizable home" within the foundation. The last adjective—interdisciplinary—is the real driver, he explained, as NSF tries to tackle some of "the most complicated problems … in the richest and most fertile domains."

NSF's budget request now pending before Congress would spend $24 million on CREATIV in 2012, with $12 million going into a central director's pot and an equal amount available to NSF's six directorates. Richard Behnke, co-chair of the internal committee that designed CREATIV, projected that amount might support 40 to 50 awards.

The initiative is actually part of a broader program—yes, it has another cloying acronym—called INSPIRE (Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education). Suresh would like INSPIRE to grow to $120 million by 2016 and expects it to support other efforts besides CREATIV, including possibly a new program to support larger interdisciplinary research teams. But CREATIV is the only INSPIRE initiative planned for 2012.

Asked whether the new program undermines NSF's traditional merit-review process, Behnke noted that the program, even at its projected maximum size, would represent less than 2% of NSF's overall research budget. "For the great majority of proposals, we will continue the traditional merit-review process," he said. "The gold standard remains in place."

At the same time, NSF officials are looking forward to a positive response from the community. "It's a new way of doing business at NSF … and we hope it succeeds," says Behnke.

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