Blog

A New Strategic Plan

Every four years, NSF releases a new strategic plan that guides the development of the agency goals and actions.  In 2022, NSF introduced its newest strategic plan, which has two notable changes compared to previous plans: 

  • For the first time, a focus on broadening participation by empowering STEM talent is front and center, followed by the goal of creating new knowledge (which is typically listed first in the strategic plans). 
  • The plan includes a goal calling for translating knowledge into solutions that benefit society.

The 2022-2026 NSF strategic plan outlines the following four strategic goals:

  • Empower STEM talent to fully participate in science and engineering
  • Create new knowledge about our universe, world and ourselves
  • Benefit society by translating knowledge into solutions
  • Excel at NSF operations and management

By elevating empowering STEM talent to the first strategic goal, NSF is bringing an agency-wide focus to this issue. To empower STEM talent to fully participate, NSF has set specific objectives of increasing the involvement of communities underrepresented in STEM and growing a diverse STEM workforce to advance the progress of science and technology. By meeting these objectives through support for research and for formal and informal education, NSF will engage and empower the millions of talented individuals still missing from the STEM workforce.

The third goal of translating knowledge to solutions acknowledges the importance of application of science to solving the problems facing our nation and the world. This goal complements the second goal of creating new knowledge, which has been the bedrock of NSF’s mission to advance national health, prosperity, and welfare since the agency was created in 1950.

Together, these strategic goals ensure that NSF supports the diverse people who are part of the scientific enterprise and continues to be at the forefront of scientific discovery and technological advancements improving society for this generation and the next.   

In the Biological Sciences (BIO), there are many programs designed specifically to empower STEM talent. All Divisions in BIO support these programs—including , Research Experiences for Undergraduates, Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in Biology, Research and Mentoring for Postbaccalaureates in Biological Sciences, Building Research Capacity of New Faculty in Biology, and others – which are hosted by the Division of Biological Infrastructure’s Human Resources Cluster.  In addition, every award funded by BIO (including in MCB) supports not just science, but the people who do the science.  Empowering STEM talent is built into the broader impacts review criterion against which all proposals are evaluated. 

To read more about NSF’s strategic goals and how the agency is pursuing these goals read the NSF Strategic Plan.

WELCOME OUR ACTING DIVISION DIRECTOR!

Dr. Karen Cone, Acting Division Director 

MCB is excited to announce the return of Dr. Karen Cone to MCB as Acting Division Director, starting in August 2022, while Dr. Theresa Good serves a detail as Acting Deputy Assistant Director in the Biological Sciences Directorate (BIO). 

Most recently, Dr. Cone was a science advisor in the Office of the Assistant Director for BIO. There she led NSF’s activities in Understanding the Rules of Life, coordinated the cross-BIO funding opportunity Integrative Research in Biology, served as the executive secretary for the NSF-wide Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, and managed the Biological Sciences Advisory Committee.  

Dr. Cone is not new to MCB. She previously served as a program director in the Genetic Mechanisms cluster. During her service, she established herself as an extraordinary colleague and mentor to new PIs in the community and to new Program Directors in MCB. She has also served as the managing program director for the CyVerse cyberinfrastructure collaborative and Acting Deputy Division Director for both the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems and MCB.  

Prior to joining NSF, Dr. Cone was a professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Her research expertise is in plant genetics and genomics, with emphasis on epigenetics and chromatin-mediated regulation of gene expression. 

Per Dr. Cone, “I am excited to have the opportunity to be back in MCB.  I look forward to renewing old relationships and forging new ones.  MCB continues to stand out in BIO in its service to the research community, and I am happy to help support this important mission.” 

Per Dr. Good, “MCB will be in great hands with Karen at the helm.  She is well respected for her leadership and scholarship both inside and outside NSF and has a reputation of innovating in the ways she supports broader impacts.  She is the right person to lead MCB during this transition.  I’m thrilled that she was willing to take on this new responsibility.” 

We are excited to steal Dr. Cone back from the front office – even if only temporarily. We are also looking forward to hearing Dr. Good’s stories and new perspectives once she returns from her detail.  

UPCOMING WEBINAR ON THE COMPETITION FOR A NEW SYNTHESIS CENTER FOR MOLECULAR AND CELLULAR BIOSCIENCES (SCMCS) 

On September 15, 2022, from 1:00 to 3:00 PM EST, NSF will hold an informational webinar on the SCMCS. The webinar will consist of a short presentation followed by an open Q&A session with cognizant Program Officers. Register for the webinar here

The aim of the SCMCS program (Solicitation NSF 22-608) is to establish a Synthesis Center for Molecular and Cellular Sciences that will create new knowledge through innovative synthesis and integration of available data. The deadline for preliminary proposals is January 13, 2023.  

You can read additional details about the SCMCS here and the upcoming webinar here.  

BIO UPDATES TOPICS IN COLLABORATION WITH UKRI/BBSRC

The National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) just announced updated topics for its collaboration with the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) for the coming year, described in Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) NSF 22-107.

Titled “UKRI/BBSRC-NSF/BIO Lead Agency Opportunity in Biological Informatics, Systems Understanding of Host-Microbe Interactions, Synthetics Cells and Cellular Systems, and Synthetic Microbial Communities” the DCL describes updates on topical areas associated with the lead agency opportunity:

  • Biological informatics
  • Systems understanding of host-microbe interactions
  • Synthetic cells and cellular systems

It also outlines a new area of interest in synthetic microbial communities.

The lead agency scheme allows for reciprocal acceptance of peer review through unsolicited mechanisms and helps reduce some of the current barriers to international collaborations.

Proposal Information
There is a two-part application process:

  • A letter of Expression of Interest, due on September 21, 2022, will be reviewed for project eligibility.
  • Eligible proposals will then be invited to submit to the appropriate lead agency program. Full proposals submitted to NSF should be received by March 2023 to receive full consideration. Refer to the DCL for important details.

Projects must be a collaboration between at least one investigator in the US and one in the UK, must address the priorities of both UKRI/BBSRC and appropriate NSF/BIO division(s), and must address the topical areas identified in the DCL. Additionally, proposers must provide a clear rationale for the need for a US-UK collaboration, including the unique expertise and synergy that the collaborating groups will bring to the project.

For full details on submission guidelines, program priorities, and contact information, see DCL NSF 22-107.

WHEN SHOULD I SUBMIT MY PROPOSAL?

Since MCB switched from one fixed deadline per year to no deadlines for accepting proposals to core programs*, Program Directors have received many questions from the community, chief among them being “when should I submit my proposal?”  Answers to the most common questions are provided below.

Q. When should I submit my proposal?

A. You should submit your proposal when you think it is ready.  There really isn’t a best time of year to submit a proposal to MCB core programs.

Q. How do I know when my proposal is ready?

A. We recommend that you ask colleagues within and outside of your immediate research area to read the proposal and provide critical feedback.  Do take their feedback seriously, because if they identify an issue, it is likely that reviewers will as well.  

Q. Are the funding rates different throughout the year?  Am I more likely to get funded if I submit early or later in the fiscal year?

A. The funding rates are the same throughout the year.  Program Directors plan their budgets based on proposal submission data from prior years such that proposals in every panel have the same chance of being funded.

Q. When are panels held?  I want to make sure my proposal gets reviewed promptly.

A. Panels are held throughout the year to ensure timely review no matter when a proposal is submitted.  Program Directors schedule a panel as soon as enough proposals are available to review as a group.  We also try to distribute the workload associated with panels on MCB staff and peer reviewers evenly through the year so that timing does not affect the quality of merit review.

Q. Does it take longer to get my reviews back now that MCB has switched to no-deadline?

A. Actually, MCB gets reviews back to PIs faster on average under no-deadline. Currently, the average time to decision is between 4.5 to 5 months. 

Q. Is there a time of year when it takes longer to get my proposal reviewed?

A. Reviews take a bit longer when a proposal is submitted in early summer.  NSF’s fiscal year starts on October 1 and ends on September 30.  In order to expend all of the funds appropriated by Congress for a given fiscal year, Program Directors have to submit their award recommendations to the Division Director in time for the Division of Grants and Agreements (DGA) to finalize all awards by September 30.  Therefore, during early summer Program Directors focus on finalizing award recommendations instead of setting up new panels.  Some proposals submitted during this period might take one or two extra months to complete review.   

Q. Is it true that there is a limit to the number of proposals that an investigator can submit in one year?

A. No.  When BIO first switched to no deadline, there was a cap on proposal submission.  However, that cap was lifted in 2018.  Investigators may submit more than one proposal a year.  But remember, a declined proposal can only be resubmitted after it has undergone substantial revision. 

* Certain special programs of interest to the MCB community have deadlines, which are noted in the summary available through NSF’s Funding Search.  Whether the program of interest to you has a deadline or not, be sure to read the solicitation carefully and reach out to a Program Director with any questions.  

MCB BIDS FAREWELL TO STEVE CLOUSE

Steve Clouse has been a program director in MCB for six and a half years. He was hired as a full-time rotating program director (VSEE) in MCB in January of 2016, working on site at the previous NSF headquarters in Arlington, VA. Steve switched to part-time program director in August of 2017, working remotely from Oregon and traveling to Alexandria, VA for panels and retreats.

What was the highlight of your time at NSF?

There have been many highlights. To work with my MCB and other NSF colleagues to fund the best possible science in cell and molecular biology and broaden my scientific perspective from a focus on my own individual research to interdisciplinary approaches, was definitely a high point. I also enjoyed working with a broad spectrum of principal investigators from the pre-submission stage of determining whether their work was appropriate for Cellular Dynamics and Function, through the review process, and finally the award or decline decision. Managing awards and following their progress was rewarding as were discussions with PIs about how to address reviewer comments for those proposals that were declined. The several large, interdisciplinary projects and research networks I was involved with, were particularly interesting.

What are you most looking forward to next?

After a career spanning more than 40 years in various aspects of scientific research, I am looking forward to more free time and more time spent outdoors. Living in Oregon definitely facilitates outdoor activities. I also look forward to more uninterrupted time to spend with family and traveling.

What personal goals did you accomplish while at NSF?

My research was funded by NSF continuously for 30 years, starting with an NSF postdoctoral fellowship in plant biology in the 1980s and concluding in 2016 with a final grant on plant proteomics before retiring as professor from North Carolina State University. I wanted to contribute something to NSF before fully retiring and also be exposed to the breadth of science that NSF funds. My six and a half years at NSF helped me achieve that goal and was a nice transition from retiring as an active faculty member, while still being involved in science and research from a different perspective.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a Program Director at the NSF?

Being a Program Director is a very worthwhile endeavor, particularly if your research program is well established and can continue to function efficiently with periodic visits back to the home institution. MCB is a great place to work. I was impressed by the collegiality of the program directors and senior management and the helpfulness and skill of the outstanding administrative staff.

Division Director, Theresa Good, said about Dr. Clouse, “Steve has been a pleasure to work with for these past six years.  As a AAAS Fellow, Steve is a highly accomplished scientist who is deeply connected to the plant science community.  As such he has not only been a great program director but also a great mentor to scientists seeking funding from MCB.  While I am glad that Steve and his wife will now have more time to hike in Oregon and travel in retirement, I will miss his quiet humor, sound advice, and steadfast commitment to NSF and its mission.”

MCB BIDS FAREWELL TO MARCIA NEWCOMER

Marcia Newcomer joined the division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) in July 2018 as a program director. She became a cluster leader in July 2020.

What was working at MCB like?

Working in MCB was a great experience, especially for someone who has spent so many years in academia. Seeing the funding process from this perspective provides a much fuller understanding of the government’s efforts and role in supporting basic research. The environment in MCB is highly cooperative, and there are many opportunities to coordinate with other divisions and directorates. 

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a Program Director at the NSF?

I would highly recommend serving as a Program Director. It is a great opportunity to be introduced to research areas well outside of one’s sphere of expertise. In some sense, it is almost like being a graduate student again, when you are excited about the research possibilities before you. It is also inspiring, because you work with so many colleagues and reviewers and are constantly reminded that there are dedicated people in this line of work who have a sense of fairness and an appreciation for how basic research can have a tremendous impact on our quality of life. You also come to appreciate government investments in research facilities, and the role of these facilities in expanding our scientific reach and providing a highly skilled workforce. 

Theresa Good, MCB Division Director said of Dr. Newcomer, “It has been a delight to work with Marcia these past four years.  She jumped in head-first, pushed us to continue to push the boundaries of the research we fund, and hasn’t stopped making a difference.  She’s been involved in developing programs for postbaccalaureate scientists, expanding the role of AI in molecular biophysics, and leveraging convergent science to prevent future pandemics.  Just as importantly, she has shared her warmth, humor, and sense of excitement for science with all of us.  We wish her the best back at LSU.”

MCB ANNOUNCES A FUNDING OPPORTUNITY FOR BUILDING SYNTHETIC MICROBIAL COMMUNITIES FOR BIOLOGY

In recent years, researchers have assembled synthetic microbial communities that have novel compositions, genetics, and phenotypes, and they have used these communities to address both fundamental biological questions and a range of societal problems. To support such research efforts, NSF has released the Building Synthetic Microbial Communities for Biology, Mitigating Climate Change, Sustainability and Biotechnology (Synthetic Communities) solicitation (NSF 22-607).

The goal of this solicitation is to support research that addresses one or more of the three themes:

  1. Define the underlying mechanisms or rules that drive the formation, maintenance, or evolution of synthetic microbial communities
  2. Use synthetic microbial communities to address fundamental biological questions, including questions in molecular biology, cellular/organismal biology, ecology, and evolution
  3. Build synthetic communities with biotechnology, bioeconomy, or environmental engineering applications

Full Proposal Deadlines: October 03, 2022 (due by 5 p.m. submitter’s local time)

Anticipated Funding Amount: $9,500,000

To learn more, read the solicitation posted here and reach out to any of the cognizant Program Officers below.

Anthony Garzaaggarza@nsf.gov(703) 292-8440BIO/MCB
John McDowelljmcdowel@nsf.gov(703) 292-8008BIO/IOS
Andrea Porras-Alfaroaporrasa@nsf.gov(703) 292-2944BIO/DEB
Mamta Rawatmrawat@nsf.gov(703) 292-7265BIO/IOS

MCB ANNOUNCES COMPETITION FOR A NEW SYNTHESIS CENTER FOR MOLECULAR AND CELLULAR SCIENCES

In recent decades, the biological sciences have experienced an unprecedented growth in data as a result of new experimental technologies, advances in computational power, and big data approaches to research. There are, however, many barriers to making full use of available datasets.

Credit: Nicolle Rager, National Science Foundation

To unlock the full potential of existing data, NSF seeks to establish a Synthesis Center for Molecular and Cellular Sciences (SCMCS) (NSF 22-608) that will create new knowledge through innovative synthesis and integration of available data and related information. The Center should advance our ability to explain and predict how biomolecular structures, interactions, organization, and functions lead to dynamic cellular phenotypes, by focusing on complex questions and using contemporary approaches that are data-intensive, team-based, and promote open science. The Center will not directly support generation of new data, nor fund an individual research group, but rather will be dedicated to facilitating synthesis of available data by multidisciplinary research teams.

The Center must:

  • Address a compelling set of scientific questions in molecular and cellular biosciences that require or are ripe for breakthroughs from synthesis of available data.
  • Enable synthesis research, i.e., integration of diverse theories, methods, and data, bringing together cross-disciplinary expertise to advance mechanistic and predictive understanding of molecular and cellular systems.
  • Develop or provide the necessary resources to enable data management and integration, advance open science strategies, enhance access to existing infrastructure, foster collaboration and team science, and promote standards and best practices for synthesis research.
  • Build an effective and evidence-based training enterprise for the next generation of scientists.
  • Integrate efforts to broaden participation across demographic, geographic, institutional, and disciplinary lines in all activities.

Program Timeline:

  • SCMCS Program Webinar: September 15, 2022
  • Preliminary proposals due: January 13, 2023
  • Results of preliminary proposal review communicated to proposers: March 2023
  • Full proposals due: July 07, 2023
  • Reverse Site Visit (RSV) notifications and scheduling: November 2023
  • Declined proposers informed, and recommended awards announced: January 2024
  • Anticipated start date of awards: February 15, 2024

Anticipated Funding Amount: $20,000,000

To learn more, read the solicitation posted here and reach out to an MCB program director.

NSF will hold an informational webinar on September 15, 2022. Registration information for this webinar is posted on the Program Web page. The SCMCS funding opportunity will also be discussed in upcoming MCB Virtual Office Hours.

MCB BIDS FAREWELL TO SONAM AHLUWALIA AND LOURDES HOLLOWAY

Sonam Ahluwalia joined the division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) as a program assistant in August 2020.

What was working at MCB like?

MCB is a unique division, where people are always looking to improve procedures, share creative ideas, and empower PIs. MCB is a place where any individual can uncover their talents, rise above challenges, and experience a true team environment. I was able to learn incredible skills during my time here and explore other career interests.

What was your first impression of NSF? How did that change over time?

My first impression of NSF was that it was just a government organization that funds science. However, over the years I have learned that NSF is beyond just a federal agency, but embodies forward-thinking, progression, efficiency, and love for all science.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about working at NSF?

Do it! There is much to learn and more to gain.

MCB Division Director, Theresa Good, said about Ms. Ahluwalia, “Sonam was the first person to start in MCB during the pandemic.  There was so much uncertainty, but she just took it in stride.  She learned quickly, volunteered for just about everything, and was unafraid of any challenge.  I can’t wait to see what she does next in her career. “

Lourdes Holloway joined MCB as a Pathways summer student in 2015 and began working as a program assistant in 2018. She became a program specialist in 2019.

What is next for you after your time at MCB?

My next step in my career remains at NSF, moving from BIO/MCB to the Division of Graduate Education in the Education and Human Resources Directorate as a program analyst. In this new position, I will be primarily supporting the Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

What was working at MCB like?

Starting out as a summer student working on records retirement to a program specialist working closely with the operations manager on division finances/operations, it’s been an amazing experience! I am so glad to have started my professional career with MCB, largely due to my colleagues and leadership. MCB is full of dedicated, supportive, and talented staff, which made this experience more rewarding. I appreciate that MCB supports cross-training and development in areas outside of your normal duties. It has allowed me to grow tremendously and develop new skills across various subjects. 

Where can undergraduate or graduate students learn about training opportunities at the NSF?

I would highly recommend current students and recent graduates interested in working at the NSF to consider the Pathways Program. It’s a great way to get your foot into the federal workforce and NSF offers a variety of experiences and positions. I had a great experience and it put me on the path I am still on today. Broadly, there are an incredible amount of training opportunities supported by the NSF. That includes programs run by the Division of Undergraduate Education and by the Division of Graduate Education as well as NSF funding opportunities for undergraduate students and graduate students.

MCB Division Director, Theresa Good, said of Ms. Holloway, “It was my privilege to work closely with Lourdes on a number of projects.  I got to see firsthand how talented she is.  It has been a pleasure to watch her grow in her skills and accomplishments.  I hope her new Division knows what a jewel they have in Lourdes.   We all wish her the best in her new position.“