Researchers under the gun to win a federal grant and facing declining success rates may be tempted to crank out another application. Data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) show that a handful of scientists seeking a research grant from its molecular and cellular biosciences (MCB) division submit two proposals in the same funding cycle. It is much more common for researchers to submit a revised proposal soon after getting word that their original application has been rejected.
But that rising volume of applications is threatening to sink an already overloaded staff, say NSF officials. The rapid revisions also have a corrosive effect on the quality of the proposals. So this month the MCB division, part of NSF's biology directorate, laid down new rules  aimed at spreading out the workload while giving applications a better shot at those elusive federal dollars.
Starting this fall, biologists applying to MCB's bread-and-butter solicitation will endure an 8-month wait between application deadlines rather than the current 6-month cycle. At the same time, says Joanne Tornow, executive officer for the biology directorate, NSF promises to continue acting upon each grant application within 6 months. The MCB division will also limit scientists to one application per grant cycle.
The longer cycle will give scientists at least 2 months to revise any rejected proposal and resubmit it by the next deadline. Tornow hopes that the extra time will allow scientists to make thoughtful improvements to their proposal—and improve their chances of success. In the past, she says, the 6-month turnaround and 6-month grants cycle forced many scientists to push themselves to the brink in hopes of meeting the next impossibly short application deadline.
Tornow hopes the extended deadlines—three rather than four over the next 24 months—will also reduce the number of applications that NSF staff members must handle in a given cycle, assuming that the pool of applicants remains relatively stable. (Last year, the division received 1200 research applications and posted a 17% success rate.) Given the dim prospects of a larger NSF budget, she says, that may be the best the agency can offer its beleaguered community.