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Ask the Experts – NEVER let this happen to you!

August 18, 2016 | Ask the Experts

We recently received the following correspondence from an NSF grant applicant:

“Dear GWSW,

I was very recently unable to complete the submission of my CRII proposal, which was due to the NSF last Wednesday.  I, unfortunately, made one of the worst mistakes I could make in my life.  I delayed all the document uploading until the last minute without considering the delays that may occur during web document conversion.   The deadline was passed by a minute or less when the proposal package was finally ready for submission, but it was unfortunately too late.  I contacted a couple of program managers, but they were not able to help. The problem is that, by the time the next deadline for CRII applications are due next year, I will be ineligible, based upon years of appointment in my current faculty position. Is there ANYTHING that I can do at this point?

Disappointed NSF Applicant”

Dear Disappointed NSF Applicant,

Our first response is, of course, to commiserate with you on this disappointing outcome to all of your earlier efforts to prepare a competitive NSF grant application. If you’ve done this correctly, it requires an enormous commitment of time and effort to prepare a truly competitive proposal and it is truly a tragedy to miss the deadline, literally by less than a minute. We appreciate fully how deeply disappointing and discouraging this must be.

Unfortunately, the advice that you received from the NSF program officers accurately represents the position of the NSF regarding late applications. Under truly exceptional circumstances (the occurrence of a hurricane or other adverse weather) in which internet service was disrupted where you live at the time of the deadline that physically prevented you from meeting the deadline, you could make a reasonable case for late submission. Further, if there were a serious personal issue in your family, such as the death of a close relative, you may be able to make a case on an individual basis; however, there would never be a guarantee of this. Absent these exceptional circumstances, the NSF (and most federal funding agencies) is relatively intransigent with respect to applications submitted after the deadline. Certainly “delaying the uploading of documents until the last minute without considering delays” would not constitute an acceptable excuse for late submission.

One alternative would be to convert the CRII application into a standard NSF application, and resubmit the revised proposal this year, provided that the deadline for the specific NSF program to which you would be applying would be later than the deadline for the CRII application. This would require some modification of your current application in order to meet the requirements for standard NSF proposals, which are not exactly the same as those for the CRII awards. Nevertheless, in most circumstances, such changes would not be likely to present an unmanageable problem. Absent that solution, it does not look like you would have many alternative options with the NSF for this year but potentially could consider alternative target funding agencies.

Again, while we certainly commiserate with you regarding this unfortunate circumstance, we suspect that you have learned an incredibly valuable lesson in your future proposal writing career. However, there is certainly one bright spot that might be forthcoming in the future regarding NSF grant applications, particularly regarding deadlines for future proposals. In this respect, in a recent article published by Eric Hand in Science Magazine, April 15, 2016, entitled “No pressure: NSF test finds eliminating deadlines halves number of grant proposals”, the author describes the results of a pilot study by the NSF Geoscience Program. In the programs selected, specific deadlines for submission of NSF proposals to these programs were totally eliminated. According to Roger Wakimoto, the study’s primary investigator, the numbers were staggering. Across four grant programs, proposal (submissions) dropped by 59% after deadlines were eliminated. “We’ve found something that many programs around the foundation can use,” Wakimoto told the advisory committee on April 13. The actual meaning of these findings for application submissions is open to interpretation; however, some investigators have expressed doubts that the omission of deadlines would yield equally impressive results.

Nevertheless, the results are intriguing and will certainly benefit from additional study. We recognize that this is likely to be of little condolence to Disappointed NSF Applicant. In the interim, while the results of this study remain to be further pursued, the advice that we would provide to all applicants would be to be absolutely certain to allow at least one week for electronic submission of your grant application. Always remember: “Never let this happen to you.” A word to the wise!