Demographic Information and You

Panel reviewers and anyone submitting a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) via FastLane,, or, are familiar with the routine request to voluntarily supply demographic information. But the reason this information is collected and how it is used is less well understood. Perhaps as a reflection of this uncertainty, a significant number of reviewers and principal investigators (PIs) do not provide this information in their responses to the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB). The editorial team of the MCB Blog interviewed Basil Nikolau, Division Director, MCB, to get a sense of why MCB encourages the community to provide demographic information.

Why is this demographic information collected?
We collect this information on a voluntary basis for two reasons. First, it can help us improve our processes for recruiting and selecting highly qualified reviewers and panelists who reflect the Nation’s diversity – this goal is cited in NSF’s Strategic Plan for FY 2018-2022. Second, the information helps us to accurately report on trends in broadening participation, both internal to NSF, such as our Division and the National Science Board, and externally to Congress and other interested stakeholders.

How is demographic information used?
The information is aggregated to monitor demographic trends in proposal submissions, proposal awards, and review panels. By tracking demographics, we can develop outreach strategies. This information also is used to guide our efforts to broadly engage the entire research community in the proposal and review process.

As mentioned earlier, a significant number of participants choose not to provide demographic information. How big a problem is this, and why?
Recent analyses indicate that nearly 30% of reviewers and funding applicants do not self-identify their demographic information. This makes it difficult for MCB to assess the degree to which communities are or are not proportionately represented. Without this information it’s difficult to identify and address cultural or other barriers to participation in NSF programs. While MCB does engage in outreach projects aimed at broadening participation, diversity, and inclusion, we’d like to be able to take more focused actions and this data is key to that goal.

Any parting thoughts on this topic?
We would like reviewers and applicants to provide the demographic information at every opportunity. This would be very helpful in developing a realistic, quantitative assessment of the MCB community. This would enable the division to formulate actionable strategies for building a community of researchers reflecting the general population.

MCB Bids Farewell to the Summer 2015 Interns

This summer, the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences had the pleasure of hosting three summer interns. These outstanding undergraduate students culled through proposals, awards and annual reports to identify trends related to informal science education, minority involvement in broader impacts, and the impact of statistical and quantitative analyses on MCB-funded projects. The preliminary data produced by the interns generated several follow-up questions to be explored in the future.

Anita AlbanFullSizeRenderese, a rising senior at the University of Nevada, Reno, investigated informal science education in  active awards in the division. With the help of her mentors, she created a working definition of informal science education as any educational activity the PI participates in outside of the required curricula. These activities included training graduate and undergraduate students, K-12 outreach, lectures or blog posts targeted toward the public, and creating workshops and conferences. In addition to investigating the types of informal education, Anita also considered the length of time that principal investigators were funded, as well as their institutional resources. The division will use these data to continue to investigate what environments influence successful informal science education activities.

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Melissa Sam, a rising junior at Northeastern State University used her love of math and statistics to learn more about the use of Big Data analyses in MCB-funded projects. Melissa included the use of both statistical methods, such as the Markov Model, network analysis, bioinformatics, and principal component analysis, and quantitative methods, such as mass spectrometry, NMR spectroscopy, ChIP-sequencing, and next generation sequencing, to define “Big Data Analyses” for her research this summer. She investigated the number of different statistical or quantitative methods per proposal, the costs associated with employing these methods, as well as the impact on the scientific community ( ie. papers, presentations, and book chapters).  Her research findings will be useful to the division whose priorities for research support include quantitative and predictive cell and molecular biology.


Mikah Barrueta,a rising senior at Otternbein University, spent her summer investigating minority involvement in the broader impacts of MCB-funded research by comparing promises to include underrepresented groups in proposals to reported outcomes in annual reports for a representative sample of awards. In addition, Mikah surveyed program directors and principal investigators to learn more about how the involvement of underrepresented groups is reported to NSF. She evaluated several topics including ways to improve reporting to better capture the demographics of participants in broader impact activities. Mikah’s data and analysis will be considered by the division, as it conducts follow-up research to address questions which emerged as a result of her research.