The program officers do not formally review proposals, nor are they voting members of review panels. However, reviews and reviewers' comments are viewed as advisory to the program officer, not controlling. The reviews are given great weight, but, by design, the program officer is charged with arriving at an independent recommendation based on his or her own analysis of the merits of the proposal and taking into account broader NSF objectives. NSF program officers have considerable flexibility in making award decisions, but that flexibility is used most often “at the margin,” that is, among proposals ranked in the middle of the averaged ratings. Program officers also work hard to “stretch” their available resources by negotiating award levels for individual proposals.
The written mail reviews and summaries of the panel meetings are provided to investigators after the award decision. This information is used by investigators to respond to criticisms or weak points in rewriting and resubmitting proposals. Even successful awardees find the comments useful. Program officers spend countless hours talking and visiting with applicants at every stage of the process, particularly counseling unsuccessful applicants. There is also a well-established process whereby unsuccessful investigators may ask in writing for reconsideration of their proposal by a higher NSF official if the investigator believes he or she did not receive a fair evaluation.
Oversight of this process is accomplished in several ways. On a day-to-day level, no award action may be taken without concurrence by at least one supervisor at least one level higher. Perhaps more importantly, scientific approval is separate from “business” approval. The program officer cannot actually commit money. This can be done only by a grant or contract officer (a nonscientist with expertise in business and financial matters) in a separate part of NSF. Thus, scientific approval is necessary but not sufficient for the actual award to occur. In the end, however, the most effective controls are the program officer 's own integrity and the openness of the entire process to external scrutiny.
In this rather loose management milieu, NSF program officers are much more independent than their counterparts at the National Institutes of Health, for example, but do not have as strong a role in decision making as program officers in U.S. military agencies.
In recent years, especially in the education programs and others where large numbers of proposals are anticipated, NSF has instituted a two-tiered proposal process. The first tier consists of a relatively short “preproposal,” which is evaluated by a small number of reviewers selected by the program officer as to whether it is in the competitive range. Investigators with successful preproposals are permitted to continue to the second tier, a full proposal, which is then evaluated as above. Another strategy NSF uses is the “planning grant.” Planning grants are stand-alone competitions for modest sums (usually a total of $50,000 or less for 1 to 2 years) to allow investigators to conduct preliminary studies or build a proposal team in advance of submitting a full proposal for a much greater level of funding. The value of these approaches is evident—proposals not in the competitive range can be weeded out without expending the time and resources (on both the investigator 's and NSF's part) that the preparation and review of a full proposal entails. In addition, for the last 3 years, investigators have had the option of applying specifically for a Small Grant for Exploratory Research (SGER). These are non-renewable, 1- to 2-year awards of $50,000 or less for small-scale, high-risk research. The criteria cited most often for approval were “untested or novel idea” or “severe time urgency with respect to collection of data.” The proposals are very short, and the program officers do not seek external reviews. This program was instituted to counter criticisms of the traditional process as being too “picky,” risk-averse, and conservative. On average, program officers employ 1 to 3 percent of their budgets for SGER proposals (the upper limit is 5 percent).
NSF has two basic types of awards: standard grants and continuing grants. Standard grants are generally used for individuals and small groups. They may be made for multiple years (usually 2), but the total funding is essentially approved and committed at the beginning of the award. Continuing grants are also made for multiple years (3 years or longer), but the funding is approved and committed annually and is subject to satisfactory progress toward the stated goals of the project. For example, in the case of