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Monday, December 7, 2009

A Newbie's Guide to Serving on an NSF Panel

I had the opportunity to serve on a National Science Foundation review panel a while ago. It was quite an undertaking to read through many different kinds of proposals, re-read them to the point of really understanding what the proposal author was saying, and then to distill it down to a brief summary, the strengths and weaknesses, and how the proposal does (or doesn't) address the goals of the program well. Pretty exhausting!

But... It was great; very, very interesting to go through the process, see how the system works, and participate in the system. Having done it once, I'd love to do it again. And it certainly gives one a very fine appreciation for what to do (and what to avoid) in a proposal so that the job of the reviewer is made easier. Even something seemingly simple, like page numbers, ends up being pretty important.

The details of the actual panel (the specific panel, program, and set of reviewers), and the content of the proposals need to be kept confidential. However, I kept thinking "Hey, I wish I knew about that before I started on this." And so I offer my list of eleven things you should know, do, or not do if you are about to serve on your first review panel.
  1. Do not print the proposals. You won't need them at the NSF, and you'll just need to shred them later. Everything you'll need is on-line in the Interactive Panel system. And there may not be much space at the panel to keep them hard-copies handy.
  2. Do not bring a laptop. The nice folks at the NSF supply a laptop with a wired network connection, and convenient desktop icons to all of the stuff you'll need. If you bring your own laptop, you'll need to have the NSF IT guys scan it before they'll allow it to connect to the network. And it won't have all of the convenient desktop icons. (All this said, I still brought my little HP Mini to use at the hotel.)
  3. Bring water. The government doesn't believe in bottled water, and if you like to drink plenty of the water during the workday, you'll wish you had ready access to some bottles.
  4. Being a Scribe is a lot more work than a Lead. Reading and reviewing proposals is a lot of work. For some, you'll also be the Lead. That's actually not a big deal at all; it just means that you have to give a brief summary of the proposal to the other reviewers, and hit its strengths and weaknesses. Ideally you'll also drive the conversation around the proposal, but the NSF program officers are there to help out, and they are really good at this sort of thing. Now, for some proposals, you may be a Scribe, and that is a lot of work since it's up to you to take the minutes of the conversation, generate a nice summary that reflects all the key evaluation points, and then coax the rest of the reviewers to read and approve your work.
  5. Invest plenty of time in your reviews. Take your time. Write good, clear prose. But be succinct. Make it easy to read so that your other reviewers can read through it quickly. You'll be glad you took the time to do this when you're the Lead. And the other reviewers will also thank you for it.
  6. Keep your receipts. The government will be paying you via a 1099, and you'll want to deduct the expenses from your income.
  7. Be sure to select the box on FastLane to disable the automatic screen refresh. If you don't do this, the system will refresh the screen on you at the most inopportune times.
  8. Submit your reviews early. The program officers and other reviewers will be able to factor in your comments if they have them before the panel. Definitely do not wait until you get to the panel. And be sure that you use the Submit Review button, not Save Review button, once your review is ready.
  9. Be very clear about the review criteria. In addition to any standard criteria, they may also be program-specific criteria, and perhaps additional specific areas which will require extra attention.
  10. The Hilton Arlington is very, very close to the NSF. There is even a covered, overhead pedestrian walkway from the Hilton to the Stafford Building. This can be very nice if it is raining.
  11. The NSF is at 4201 Wilson Blvd. It is in a large, shared office building called Stafford Place. I'm not sure that I ever found the street address in any convenient page on the NSF Visitors page.

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