Solar System Exploration Policy Forum

Impact of Delays in Selection and Funding of Research and Data Analysis Program Awards

March 31, 2012

I received an Early Career Award, which promises $100K in startup funds. I then got myself a faculty job, for which this award and the startup funds were important factors. I then enthusiastically asked for the $100K startup funds. That proposal was submitted in October 2010 - 517 days ago. No selection/rejection letter has reached me yet.

As a part time researcher, I've only applied for new grants as my current projects are ending. A proposal submitted well over a year ago was accepted that should have allowed me continue my planned level of research without interruption. Although I was informed that the proposal had been selected six months ago, there is still no sign that the funding process has begun. I've been informed that budget issues should not threaten this award, but that they are delaying the release of funds. Although I had planned to present initial results of this work at a recent conference by now, this project has yet to start. Since I recently scaled-down my research commitments after working on a mission for several years, I'm not currently receiving any salary for planetary research until this funding starts. Although I have other work that is not dependent on grants, the delays are disruptive as it's not possible to completely stop and start research based on an unknowable schedule. For example, a co-investigator who has a limited term post-doctoral appointment had planned to be working on this project during his current appointment but may end up leaving it before much of the work can be done. If these funding delay become typical, more researchers will be submitting follow-on or related proposals two years before a current project ends to avoid long interruptions in a specific area of research. It would be more productive for scientists to be writing proposals based on the results of work that is nearing completion than to be focusing on related proposals in the middle of projects due to anticipated funding delays.

Although I have not been impacted by funding delays -- thanks to a good and proactive program manager who automatically initiated funding for the top ranked proposals regardless of whether the budgets were completely set -- I am very concerned by the continually decreasing selection rates for the PSD programs that can fund my work, which have declined from a steady 30% to an anomalous 20% in the past couple years. I think the planetary science field as we know it can survive at the 30% funding level for the long term or at the 20% level temporarily, but a 20% selection rate over more than a couple years is bound to have a major effect, especially to those on 100% soft money, which is a relatively large proportion of the planetary community compared with Earth, Astrophysics, etc. I, for instance, will likely lose health insurance for my family next year, as I need to be XX% funded to keep it, unless I can bring my funding back up. It's not always easy to sell [XX] to panels that are not interested in [YY], even for potentially transformative work on exoplanets.

... A large portion of the people who plan and analyze data from NASA's spacecraft missions are on soft money, and [] there will ultimately be a growing exodus of scientists needed to support solar system exploration if the current low selection rates continue.

The obvious correlation between increased number of proposals and lower selection rate in PSD in recent years is only going to continue as the unsuccessful proposers resubmit, until those people leave the field and go elsewhere to support their families. At that point the 20% selection rate might be supportable, but at a great and permanent loss to the country's expertise in solar system science exploration.

I had a proposal submitted early last year which took well over 300 days to reach a final decision - it languished in the "selectable" category for several months. My final decision came less than a month before the due date for the next year's call in the same program. While I am not currently in a soft money position, I anticipate being in one within a few years, and the success of the proposals I am submitting now bears directly on whether or not I will be able to support myself in such a position. The real problem with such delays in the decision process is the inability to revise the proposal for resubmission based on the panel evaluation. If the decision comes so close to the deadline for the next year's call, it is nearly impossible to submit an improved proposal that incorporates comments from the panel. The ideal situation would be to have both the decision and the evaluations early enough to know both whether or not the proposal needs to be resubmitted and what criticisms the panel had of the proposal. I realize that this may be an impossibility given the fiscal uncertainty in the R&A program. However, a major improvement would be to decouple the evaluation distribution from the decision announcements; even if I don't know if a proposal will be selected, I could at least begin to revise it in case it is not. Obviously this creates the potential for needless extra work in the event that the proposal IS selected, but it would certainly be better than the current situation. This suggestion was raised during the R&A event at LPSC, and I think it's a very good idea.

My MFR is dominantly field work, and the delay means that I will most likely not conduct any field work until summer 2013 as the planning window for 2012 will be too short given my committments to MSL in the latter part of the summer. It is unfortunate, but I am very appreciative of notification that the award is selectable; this knowledge is better than silence. It is quite a juggle to plan ones time adequately for proposing grants with these long delays.

I have 28 years experience in research on extraterrestrial materials. I received a preliminary notification of "Selectable" on the renewal of my main research grant in November, 2011. Months went by and the ending date for my current support (April 15, 2012) came closer and closer, with no further news from the program but many discouraging rumors. The delay in knowing whether funding would be continued generated many problems which seriously impeded progress on the research that has been funded by NASA for almost 10 years. First, it made it difficult (or impossible) to conduct or schedule necessary analyses (resulting ultimately in serious delays due to heavy scheduling demands on the instrumentation), make critical decisions about the course of the research, or make commitments to collaborators. More fundamentally, the uncertainty in knowing whether I would have any income after April 15 forced me to begin looking for other jobs. The job market being what it is, any potentially appropriate job would have required that I sell my home and move, so I also had to begin planning for this possibility. One attractive job offer emerged, but would have to be accepted very soon. Fortunately, the decision to select the proposal was announced, almost 6 months after the preliminary decision and less than one month before current support expired. This long delay resulted in significant loss of productivity and progress on this continuing research.

Delays in knowing if I've gotten funding or not makes it more difficult to p lan my time for future proposals (i.e., will I have to spend time reworking a proposal for resubmission or will I have to write new proposals to other funding programs?). Summer is generally proposal-writing season; however, it is when I have the least time to do this because my child is out of school and requires more of my time. It would be nice to be able to spend the spring writing proposals, if I need the funding, and submit them later when they are due, but not have to do much of the writing then. This situation may also jeopardize the quality of my proposals and ability to get future funding.

I have anxiety over funding and delays make me often stretch out proposals I already have funded into NCEs to assure some partial funding will continue. This opposes what NASA wants (i.e., no carry-overs) because this approach brings me more stability so I can cover my time and benefits in leaner years. Minor (and, of course, major) delays in notifications or receipt of funding have a large lever arm for impacting the scientists.

I was notified in January 2011 that my 2010 PMDAP grant proposal, submitted late October 2010 would be funded "at some level." This was very good news and unusually prompt notification compared to many I have had. However, by early May 2011, I had not received any funding or review information.

I contacted the program officer and was told that I was to receive only 1 of the 3 years of funding I had asked for as "seed money." I did not get the formal NSPIRES "Decision has been made" letter until August, 2011.

In September, 2011, I was finally able to start drawing salary from the project. By that time, there was no way that I could do any substantial work on the project before the next PMDAP deadline (Oct 2011).

Because of the funding delay, the soonest I can apply for a follow-on PMDAP program is October 2012. If I am successful at winning the 2012 PMDAP, given the current funding administration delays, I will probably not receive the money until late summer 2013, a full year after funding from the current project will run out.

Had the system worked as advertised, I would have been able to get a reasonable amount of work done on the project before the Oct 2011 PMDAP proposal deadline and continue working on the project without a funding gap.

Now I risk a salary shortfall for a significant portion of a year, so I must apply for more grants on other projects. This takes time away from active projects, jeopardizing their follow-up funding. It also puts the long-range science goals of the original PMDAP at risk, since if I am successful at winning the other grants (which are in completely different science fields), I won't have time to commit to another PMDAP for several years. But if I don't do work on my PMDAP science for several years, I am viewed as an unproductive member of that science sub-discipline, so future funding is jeopardized.

I take full responsibility of the fact that I did not write a competitive enough 2010 PMDAP proposal to win 3 years of support. I am willing to do incremental work and write a follow-on proposal for additional work. I am willing to do all of this in a timely manner so that I can apply for a follow-on grant would start in the fiscal year following my initial "seed money" grant. What I cannot due is force NASA to follow its own advertised schedule for the administration of grants that would make that smooth year-to-year transition possible.

In addition to a problem for people waiting to hear on their submitted proposals, there is a problem for people planning their next years of work, because we don't have a clear idea which programs will be funded -- and it's hard to know how to propose research if you don't know which programs will be vigorous, and which programs will be defunded. So the whole field of Planetary Science is more or less held in limbo.

I have experienced delays in several NASA grants programs.

1. Notification delays in grants selections

I was notified only very recently of the outcome of a proposal, over 9 months after submission.

While waiting to hear the verdict on two outstanding proposals from another program, I had to prepare and submit a similar proposal idea to a different AO. I submitted the NOI/Phase 1 proposal and put together a full proposal draft for my institutional internal review. Without the benefit of the latest NASA panel review results, I did this without knowing (a) whether my proposal ideas were already picked up by NASA, (b) if my proposal ideas were worth revamping vs. abandoning, and (c) how much FTE on my current & pending that I had free to commit to this and other proposals. The answer turned out to be (a), so it's frustrating to have spent all this extra time on preparing a new proposal for nothing.

2. Actual start date of award and arrival of Year 1 funding much later than requested start date.

I submitted a proposal with a start date in 2009. Interim notification e-mail and decision letter arrived 6.5 and 7.5 months later, respectively, saying that my proposal was selected for funding. NASA adjusted the official start date of my grant to be 9 months after the requested start date. However, funding arrived at my institution almost 2 months later that that, such that my award started in late 2010, nearly 1 full year after than the requested start date. This year delay affected my ability to be promoted and to support myself, and I paid thousands of dollars out of pocket for business-related expenses, including conference travel and fees, computers, software, and supplies that should have been charged to a grant. The availability of team members and shared equipment on the grant itself was also significantly affected by the delay in adjusted start date.

On an award with funding sent to different institutions, my Co-Is received their funding earlier than me (the PI). Because the funds for the supplies needed to begin the experiments were under the PI portion, I had contractors ready to work for 3 months before we could actually do anything. We have been shouldering a couple of months delay in conducting experiments simply because of the delay in start date to funding date.

3. Phasing of award; funds paid on different years

I had an award in which Year 1 funding was phased into 2 installments. Team members were confused on how much funding they would be receiving in each installment and by what date they had to spend down to guarantee arrival of the 2nd installment. I spent a lot of meeting time and e-mail traffic on this issue, time when we should have been in the lab or discussing science. The Co-I budgets that contained equipment costs were also phased, which delayed repairs to get the equipment fully operational for our tasks.

Separate from the phasing issue, I had an award where one of my Co-Is was paid a year too early by NASA. In contrast, Year 2 funds for other team members and equipment arrived 6 months late. Paying Co-I # 1 too early caused confusion on whether he had received funding at all and what he was supposed to be doing for my project. It took additional e-mails to get NASA HQ to distribute the Year 2 funding for the other team members. Funds for this award are being taken out of or pushed forward to the wrong fiscal year, which does not inspire confidence that funds will be available for Year 3.

Take-home messages:

Sticking close to requested start and stop dates on a grant proposal is important. Scientists select these carefully so that we can commit our time and facilities among many projects, for NASA and other funding agencies. If NASA adjusts these by a year or even 6 months, it adversely affects project performance and continuity of funding to investigation team members.

When NASA incurs a delay, proposers and PIs inherit it. PIs are challenged and frustrated by adhering to project timetables that start late but must be finished on time.

Phasing of awards and "creative accounting" in paying one year's budget out of a different fiscal year causes availability of labor and equipment to be out of sync, possibly jeopardizing deliverables.

Notifying proposers of review panel results in a more timely fashion (especially before proposal deadlines in similar programs) helps scientists to balance workflow on multiple projects.

In a previous project the delay in funding after selection was almost a year; I was able to take on enough support from other projects to keep going but one of my Co-Is at the same institution had difficulty covering his time. While he was in this situation he was being actively sought by the oil and gas industry for his expertise. Although he would have preferred staying active in planetary science he gave in to one of the natural gas industry headhunters and left us for a more secure job.

The most direct impact this year is that, because most the 2012 proposal deadlines are yet to be announced (None of the ones that are very relevant to what I want to propose to for the rest of the year are announced -- e.g., Outer Planets Research, Planetary Mission Data Analysis, Planetary Atmospheres) -- I'd like to be able to plan my time for the rest of the year but this uncertainty can definitely impact the quality of my proposals and chance of selection depending on how far ahead of time the deadlines will be announced.

I am going to ASSUME that the deadlines are similar to last year, but Cassini Data Analysis deadline turned out to be much sooner than last year -- I actually had to cut short a previously planned vacation to meet the Step-1 proposal deadline last Friday March 23rd -- that deadline was not announced until Feb 14th, so these uncertainties affect not only the qualities of the proposals, but quality of life as well.

I was notified in Dec. 2009 that I had been selected as an Early Career Fellowship recipient for a ROSES 2007 DDAP program that I had been awarded. Lots of excuses why the notification letter of the ECF was 2 years late, but it sounded like it boiled down to somebody just dropped the ball. Once I knew that I was selected, I applied in the Oct. 2010 round for the $100K start up funds for the ECF part 2 selection. I have met with Curt Niebur (NASA HQ Lead Program officer for the ECF) at the 2011 LPSC and have been in e-mail communication with him and additional e-mail, phone and face to face communication with Mike Kelley (HQ Program official for my original DDAP) about this over the 2 year time period that has passed since I was notified of the ECF. No one can tell me if I have been selected for the $100K start-up funds. They can't tell me if they are still waiting for funds before announcing and awarding and when that may be. No one can tell me if I was not selected and need to resubmit in the next round, of which I am only eligible for 3 yrs post the award letter, so I am running out of time, but will not waste my time rewriting and resubmitting if my first submission was selectable. It is frustrating because I am up for promotion soon and would like to show that I have had multiple successful grants and that with the ECF money I am starting a new lab program in the department that I am in. I have also tried to hire a postdoc on 2 occasions and haven't been able to guarantee more than 1.5 years of funding with that award (and others) being delayed.

We also have not yet heard about the PMDAP's from 2011. I know that we are just around the time they should be announcing, but for what it is worth, they haven't been announced.

One of the problems with the delays is that it impacts special opportunities related to the grant. In my case, our PGG is selectable, and includes money for me to go along with an existing field campaign to [] to work. If the selection comes after that field season, that opportunity may not exist and data we could have gotten will not happen. There are a couple of similar possibilities in other grants. Some of my grants we are finding out now despite being submitted after said PGG program.

I'm also frustrated that the email from PGG basically said that there may be no new selections...which sucks because we spend weeks writing and submitting. If there's no money in the pot, why is there a call in the first place???

I'm in the process of relocating to the [] area, for family reasons, preferably into a university research position. As a late mid-career hire, the prospects are entirely dependent on having the research to support such a position. In the interim, I’ve been commuting coast-to-coast. The delay in award decisions has been extremely frustrating, though neither unexpected nor unprecedented. At this point, however, I will likely leave the field if another opportunity presents itself.

I am a self-supported faculty and I have to bring in my entire salary through grants. I received an email from OSS program officer in Sept 2011 saying that my proposal *was selected and would at least be partially funded*. Since then I have been waiting to receive the funds, but as you know, nothing has been done yet. I did receive an email from them saying that they have budget to fund the continuing grants but not the new ones like mine. And, that they would let us know about funding of new grants when they get their budget.

I am also a CoI o a cosmochemistry grant that has been selected but we have received no funds yet.

Like many other self-supported scientists, this has immediate and important impact on my research (and my life). I am on the last year of my current grants and if the new ones do not come in on time, my job (and many other related aspects of it such as health insurance, etc.) will be in danger of termination.

The delay of my upcoming Origins grant has definitely had a negative impact -- this is to continue research from my previous Origins grant, but that ended two months ago and I've been scrambling to figure out how to keep my students funded across that gap.

I suffered from delays in the distribution of PGG funding in 2011. In order to accomplish the proposed science objectives (which involved analog field mapping), I needed to undertake the field work last spring with a graduate student working on the project. I received notification of the award in February so hoped that I would receive the funding in a reasonable time thereafter. As long as funding is received within 60 days of project-related expenditures, reimbursement is possible. Unfortunately, the funding never materialized and I lost over $2000 that should have charged to the project. The funding finally showed up in September - a month after our start of semester so not in time to allocate the graduate student stipend that was supposed to go to the student working on the project. NASA funding distribution has always seemed out of touch with academic year scheduling needs.

Fortunately, I'm back on track now with the science, but it was a frustrating 7 months.

The tardiness in funding unfortunately impacts me in two ways:

1. By the time funds arrive, changes to salaries and burden have been made. With current inflationary trends, this means that the overall work hours have to decrease. With my most recent proposal, I have minimized the impact to my Co-Is and have taken the financial hit myself.

2. A large part of my salary comes from Cassini. As such, I have to give the Cassini management a realistic estimate of the level of work I can commit to them for a given FY. Uncertainty in the R&A funds can thus impact the level of funding that I get from Cassini. Fortunately, this has been in the noise, but it may no longer be the case should funding for Cassini's extended mission be diminished.


Background Courtesy NASA/JPL/Caltech.