Eliminating NSF grant deadlines halved the number of proposals they received

How can the National Science Foundation cope with an exploding number of grant proposals?

Annual or semiannual grant deadlines lead to enormous spikes in submissions, which in turn cause headaches for the program managers who have to organize merit review panels. Now, one piece of the agency has found a potentially powerful new tool to flatten the spikes and cut the number of proposals: It can simply eliminate deadlines.

This week, at an NSF geosciences advisory committee meeting, Assistant Director for Geosciences Roger Wakimoto revealed the preliminary results from a pilot program that got rid of grant proposal deadlines in favor of an anytime submission. The numbers were staggering. Across four grant programs, proposals dropped by 59% after deadlines were eliminated. “We’ve found something that many programs around the foundation can use,” Wakimoto told the advisory committee on 13 April.

From Science Magazine.

My first reaction was that procrastinators are penalized. That is, there’s a behavioral explanation. That was what many people in the article said. And it’s surely true.

That means it might also be a short term effect, and the equilibrium number of proposals will be the same.

But, after eight years working with Yale, Columbia, and IPA, another idea occurred to me: it’s sometimes impossible to get  bureaucracies to do anything without a hard deadline. Every day is “address the emergency day”. So I predict better bureaucrats and managers will be rewarded. Will the incentives finally get it right?