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Increasing your chance of serving on an NSF panel

tl/dr: How do you get on an NSF panel? Ask:

  • Program officers who often review proposals in your area.
  • With enough info about yourself to help them think about your expertise.
  • At times that they’re looking for panelists so that it’s salient.
  • (And, let your senior colleagues know you’re interested too.)

More details:

One of the questions I get as an NSF program officer [1] is “how do I get invited to be on a panel?” [2] One high level answer is that you ask [4] — easy, right? But there are some aspects about how you ask that might increase your chances, and that’s what this post is about.

First, you should ask the right people and programs at NSF [5]. You can get some feel for this through asking your own colleagues. Another strategy is to use NSF’s Award Search tools to find programs and program officers who tend to administer awards close to your own heart. Search using terms you’d expect to see, and click through to find details about the awarding program and managing program officer. [6]

Once you’ve found a good candidate or two, drop them an email. Tell them you’re interested in paneling, along with a bit about you: who and where you are, how long you’ve been there, your expertise (some keywords, a short bio para about your research interests, and your home conferences/journals/research communities are all useful) [7]. Listing a web page and attaching a CV can also help people think about who you are and how you fit.

The timing of the mail may also help. My own evolving observation is that I’m looking for panelists — and know roughly what other program officers might be looking for — about a week after any given submission deadline [9]. Sending such a mail right after the deadline for a solicitation you have something in common with (so you’re a potentially qualified reviewer) but didn’t submit to this year (so you don’t have a conflict of interest [10]) might make your request especially salient [11].

Finally, it doesn’t hurt to let your intellectually related senior colleagues know that you’re itching to serve on a panel [12]. In practice, we often ask more senior folks to serve first [13], and they often decline [14]. They’ll sometimes volunteer alternate names (or tell me some when I ask if they know anyone who might be a good panelist instead), so that’s one more route to Arlington [15].

That’s what I’ve got about how to increase your chances of serving on a panel. Included below the footnotes are a few links from other program officers and panelists about how to get on a panel, how they work, and why you should; hopefully, they (and this) are useful. And, hope to see you on a panel sometime soon.

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[1] Disclaimer: my thoughts and opinions in this post are entirely my own and in no way are meant to represent official positions of my NSF overlords or NSF itself.

[2] You absolutely should serve on panels [3]: it provides insight into and confidence in the reviewing process that can help your own proposing; it’s good service to the intellectual community and the country; you get to meet other interesting folks and chat with program officers; and like other kinds of reviewing, it’s one of the ways you are part of the conversation about how your field evolves and the gift economy of academia.

[3] Not too many, though. My panel experience is that it’s 3-4 hours per proposal I review (a common load in CISE is ~7-9 reviews) plus another 3-4 hours of logistics, plus 2-3 full days of travel + panel work. One per year is probably good, solid service; more if you’re a frequent submitter, less if less.

[4] Some programs/solicitations will send out broad surveys of availability and expertise to a large set of candidate panelists. Filling those out is another way to be on the radar.

[5] Everything in this paragraph also applies to thinking about where to _submit_ proposals, BTW.

[6] This will also help you get a broad picture of “what gets funded”, as well as discovering programs that might fit you but that you never knew about. I was pretty bad at this as a PI.

[7] Different people at NSF use different kinds of info [8] to help classify people and proposals — some use keywords, some think about main contribution venues, some use self-descriptions. So having a bit of each is not bad.

[8] One of my great surprises when I came here was that different directorates, divisions, programs, and people do things differently. There’s some high level agreement and policy, but lots of local variation.

[9] Other program officers may have different practices — see [8]!

[10] Conflict rules vary depending on the solicitation; in general, the more money or fewer proposals are involved, the more strict the conflict rules. For instance, for the CISE Research Infrastructure (CRI) program, you can’t have panelists from any institution involved with any proposal on a given panel.

[11] Our tools for finding panelists are not great, which induces a temptation to rely on your existing knowledge and network, which often leads to choosing repeat panelists and awardees you are familiar with at the expense of newer folks.

[12] Also worth doing this to encourage them to suggest you for program committees and conference organizing committees, which is good for burrowing into your research community.

[13] Particularly for larger competitions and things like CAREER and CRII proposals, where their relatively broader vision and greater experience are a win. And, [11]. And [8].

[14] My overall hit rate so far is that maybe 33% of folks I ask say yes.

[15] Or, starting in late 2017 assuming all goes as planned, Alexandria — NSF is moving.

A couple of thoughts from NSF itself and from former program officers:

Community members discussing the why (and sometimes the how) of panels — but remember [8]:

NSF is not the only funding agency, so a couple more guides that talk about other agencies:

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