Small grants enhance exploration

Blogger “Prof-like substance” opens the curtain a bit on grant reviews: “What I learned at an NSF Bio preproposal panel”.

- Small proposals get killed. For a long time there has always been the party line at NSF that there was no reason for a small grant mechanism because you could always send in a small proposal. Well, guess what happens when you remove the budget and measure all proposals with the same stick? Yeah.

This is really a problem, since the usual outcome is that sections fund a set of large projects with budgets that must be trimmed to the point of near-inviability.

Small grants are incredibly important to scientific exploration. We should be funding more of them, particularly with the limited funds NSF has at its disposal. We need more people in more places doing more things independently.

Besides which, a small grant from a section enables the PI to pursue additional supplements to get undergraduates involved in research, to broaden outreach opportunities. It also establishes credibility for projects in ways that attract other funding sources. Getting into the grant system is the most effective way for a young PI to find collaborations that will succeed in competitions for much larger interdisciplinary projects (like the “Big Data” initiative currently underway).

I think making more small grants available to more researchers would be the single best thing NSF could do to improve its overall proposal pool.