A Look at the World of NSF Proposals

nsf_bldg(This week’s post comes to us from Tom Mattern, Sponsored Projects Specialist in the Research Projects Administration office at Johns Hopkins University.)


Though the consolidated schools of the Johns Hopkins University may see the greatest volume of federal awards coming from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation is no slouch when it comes to providing the University with significant funding. Thus, the familiarity with NSF policies and procedures is an important aspect of federal proposal development.

The crux of all NSF proposals lies within the agency’s Fast Lane submission system. While NSF proposals can be submitted through Grants.gov, the ease and relative simplicity of submitting a proposal through Fast Lane makes any other submission method impractical. For proposal preparation, Fast Lane offers an up-front section-by-section layout that will, for the most part, indicate to the preparer when a section has not been completed properly.

As far as general requirements and the precise details of program announcements are concerned, in many ways, NSF’s guidelines are much simpler than that of other federal sponsors, though they are not without their occasional quirks and odd specifics. The main source of reference for NSF is the agency’s Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide, better known simply as the PAPPG. Much like NIH’s SF 424 Application Guide, the PAPPG leaves no stone unturned in its thorough description of NSF’s policies; though it can often read much more straightforward as NSF has less variance in its guidelines from program to program than NIH. Thus, most special circumstances and deviations from standard practices will be specifically noted in program announcements rather than buried in a line of text in the application guide.

With NSF submissions, though one can expect some of the same broad policies that are seen with NIH (use of federally negotiated indirect cost rates, prohibition of cost sharing, use of organizational codes such as JHU’s DUNS number, etc.), the agencies generally differ in their section-by-section requirements. Common examples include NSF’s slightly longer 15 page project description, shorter 2 page biographical sketches (NSF has fairly specific requirements on section headings for bio-sketches), its three-sectioned project summary, and its required inclusion of current and pending support. Specifically, the current and pending section has become an integral part of NSF proposal development as it indicates compliance with one of NSF’s most prominent rules: At no point may a PI commit more than 2 months of effort per year across all NSF awards in which he or she is involved.

Still, even with some of its specific requirements, NSF proposals often feel much less in-depth than NIH proposals. Once the ins and outs of the Fast Lane system are understood, the proposal development process becomes quite easy for PIs, RSAs, and Research Administration personnel alike. Combined with the fact that Fast Lane notifies of errors and warnings (and will not allow for the proposal to be submitted before the issues are corrected), this often makes the electronic submission of proposals less stressful than with NIH. Even if an issue is noticed after submission, as long as it is before the due date, PIs can freely conduct Proposal File Updates without having to withdraw or create a Change/Corrected application.  (Note that this is with the exception of the budget, where any changes will need to be made through a Budget Revision.)

Though it can get convoluted at times jumping from sponsor to sponsor and the seemingly endless requirements that each has, having a grasp of the different policies and procedures certainly pays off. Ultimately, with awards becoming increasingly difficult to secure, the understanding of the numerous federal sponsors and the individualized systems that many are now employing is critical in developing the most effective proposals possible, with NSF and Fast Lane being no exception.