In DepthBehind the Numbers

NSF's novel solution to a workload crunch

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Science  04 Dec 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6265, pp. 1143
DOI: 10.1126/science.350.6265.1143

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The National Science Foundation (NSF) frequently cites its low overhead costs when asking Congress for more money. But there's a downside to that efficiency—the risk of overloading the program officers who manage research grants. The workload problem became acute in 2004, after the number of proposals submitted to NSF had soared by 37% in the previous 3 years, to almost 44,000. That surge had sent success rates plummeting from 31% to 24%, a level that alarmed researchers. And there was no matching increase in NSF's cadre of roughly 400 program officers. Fearing that program officers would be drowned by the flood of applications, then-NSF Director Arden Bement attacked the two factors that determine their workload: the number of proposals NSF receives and the size of the staff that manages them. And he turned the tide by taking advantage of NSF's reliance on scientific workforce and the way the agency's budget is structured.