I have a little something to admit. I just registered as a potential reviewer for the NSF GRFP for the first time. (That’s the Graduate Research Fellowship program, for the noobs). I’ve been on here for years talking about the program: how it works, how the outcomes are inequitable, how we can do our part to increase representation in the applicant pool, yadda yadda, but I’ve never even tried to put in the work and become a reviewer until now. Does that make me a hypocrite? A little bit, yeah.
Are you interested in becoming a reviewer? You can sign up here with a copy of your CV and let NSF know that you’re available. The whole process took me about five minutes.
While I haven’t been on a GRFP panel, I have served on a variety of other NSF panels. (And if I do review for the GRFP, I won’t actually specifically mention this or talk about it, because, well, NSF does want panelists to talk about their experiences on panel because they know that this kind of transparency about process is good, but they don’t want you to do this while revealing the specific panels that you were on, because that kind of sharing is obviously problematic.) One thing that I want to let you know about panels is that they really do emphasize diversity in all kinds of ways. On the panels I’ve served, for a variety of programs (and no I’m not saying which ones, because those are the rules). There is clear representation with respect to ethnicity, gender, disability, and such. There are people at all career stages, with lots of junior PIs along with a smattering of mid career and senior scientists (and I can remember at least one postdoc, whose expertise was well aligned with that panel). With my emphasis on Small Ponds Of The Metaphorical Kind, I’m glad to let you know that pretty much every panel has had good representation of both regional public universities as well as SLACs. I’ve been on panels with community college faculty and with folks working for state and federal agencies, too.
I am mentioning that NSF does a good job on panel diversity because I think it really matters. I have seen on so many occasions how the diversity of perspectives from panelists affects panel recommendations in important ways.
There are some great reasons to be a reviewer. Did you know they pay, and that they pay isn’t bad? Also, while GRFP panels are different than typical grant panels, from what I’ve anecdotally heard, they have a lot in common with how other panels are run. If you haven’t had a chance to be a panelist, this is a good way to gain some insight into how funding decisions happen, which is important for everybody who submits proposals to NSF. Also, watching how GRFP proposals get funded and don’t get funded can be really important for those of us who are advising applicants to the program. If you’re looking to support students in your department or your lab, then this experience can give you some great wisdom to pass along.
Which is why I think it’s critical for you to sign up to be a reviewer for the GRFP, and for you to recruit colleagues outside doctoral granting institutions to serve on panels. Because this kind of diversity matters and it’s always needed. Consider that NSF funds 2,000 GRFPs per year, and that’s only a smaller fraction of the total number of the proposals. Think about how many panels NSF has to run in a small window of time and how many panelists they need in all kinds of STEM disciplines?! Maybe they don’t need you, but shouldn’t you give them the opportunity to invite you to join a panel? The way to do this is register your availability on their website, all you need is basic info about yourself and a pdf of a CV to upload.
It’s no joke, they need lots of us to make ourselves available for panel service. And they honestly want more of us from teaching-focused institutions.
Oh, and if you want to serve on other panels, be sure to contact program officers with a copy of your CV and say that you’re interested. That’s totally normal and how you get on their radar.
If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering how I’ve avoided registering as a reviewer all these years? I’ve got a few excuses that I think are pretty good. The first is that I’ve done 1 or 2 regular panels per year for the past several years, and if you include all the effort you put in (including travel time for when they were in person), it takes up a solid week of work. I hear that GRFP panels are smaller in scale and the applications are much shorter than regular proposals, so the time commitment is a bit less, but still, I feel like I’ve put in my time. Second, the timing is challenging. You get the copies of applications in early December and reviews are due in early January, with virtual panels held in mid-January. I think we all have plans over the holidays that make this hard to fit in, but on top of that, I often have travelled in early January for fieldwork, and I can’t say that far in advance if I’m going to be free for a panel in mid-January because I’d be in the field or coming back. Even though the panel is (now) just a one day five-hour session, committing to those reviews is a hard thing to do in that window of time. I have no idea what I’m doing in mid-January now, but I think I will be able to pin down that window of time with enough advance notice.
If I’ve run out of excuses for signing up, maybe you can find the time too? Maybe I’ll see you on one of those panels?