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Ken Bloom | USLHC | USA

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Shovels ready

As has been mentioned in various earlier posts, there is a lot of excitement about the stimulus package (aka the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) passed into law last month, and the new funds that are being made available for scientific research as a result.  It’s a substantial sum of money, in the billions of dollars — you can read a description here of what funds have been distributed where for science.  By my reading, the Department of Energy Office of Science is getting an additional $1.6B, and the National Science Foundation is getting $2.5B into its “research and related activities” account.  (These two agencies provide the great bulk of support for particle physics research in the US.)  Now the big question: how exactly will that money be distributed?

Every agency is going to have its own rules and its own set of priorities, and they need to be in line with the stimulus bill’s strict requirements on tracking how the funds are spent.  But we now have one set of clues, in the form of a memo from Arden Bement, the director of the NSF.  Their approach is to not create new programs that solicit new proposals, but to fund as many of the already-submitted proposals that have gotten excellent ratings from peer reviewers but have gone un-funded due to lack of resources.  One explicit goal that is stated is to fund excellent proposals submitted by researchers who have never held an NSF grant before — the young (or at least younger) people who will be the backbone of science over the next ten or twenty years.

I personally think that this is a very good approach.  There is currently a surplus of good ideas in science — there is so much more that we could do if we only had the resources.  Consider some of the statistics:  In 2007, only 26 percent of proposals to NSF were funded, down from 33 percent in 2000.  (It’s a little better in Mathematics and Physical Sciences, where 32 percent of proposals were funded in 2007.)  If you have never won an NSF grant before, you have only a 19% chance of getting your proposal funded, compared to 30% if you have won before.  About 25% of proposals that are rated excellent by reviewers aren’t funded, while more than 50% of those rated very good to excellent are rejected.  In 2007, that was a total of 6,297 proposals the NSF and the peer reviewers would wanted to have funded if there were sufficient resources available.

Rejected proposals that were rated as stronger than the average accepted proposal requested a total of $1.8B.  “Over the last ten years, NSF’s capacity to fund these highly rated proposals has diminished.  In FY 1997, the ratio of awards to highly rated declines was 5:1; in FY 2007, that ratio had dropped to less than 2:1. NSF is thus supporting a smaller proportion of potentially fundable proposals.  These declined proposals represent a rich portfolio of unfunded opportunities, proposals that if funded may have produced substantial research and education benefits.”

$2.5B will go a long way towards clearing this backlog.  Our shovels are ready.

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