The Times They Are a-Changin'
Earlier this month, NSF announced that they are no longer receiving STEP proposals (either type 1 or type 2). Those who were planning to submit STEP proposals for the December 3 deadline are instead being referred to a new "funding opportunity" (IUSE) that appeared on the NSF website the same day.
Many of us have been anticipating the new funding opportunity, but I think the STEP announcement caught most of us by surprise. Given that the next due date for proposals was less than a month away, I had assumed that NSF was prepared to allow this one last STEP competition before folding STEP into a new program. This seemed particularly likely given that the Federal Government is operating on a Continuing Resolution (which generally means no new programs can be initiated).
So what do these changes mean for the STEP community? A number of you have been asking me this question, so I thought I should try to formulate a response. Please understand that, although my two plus years as a DUE Program Manager provide me with some insight, I have no inside knowledge, so this post is largely speculative! It reflects my own opinions, not those of NSF.
"We have already submitted a STEP proposal for the December 3 deadline. What will happen to it?" Only an NSF STEP program officer can tell you for sure! Perhaps previously submitted proposals will be considered as part of IUSE, but this is just a guess. Even if that is the case, you will want to ask a program officer about revising and resubmitting a proposal that would fit better within the new IUSE framework.
"Is IUSE a new program? If so, where is the program solicitation?" My guess is that IUSE is a "placeholder" until a formal new program can be established. Notice that it is listed as a "funding opportunity", not a "program", and there is no formal solicitation. This appears to be a way to circumvent the limitations of the Continuing Resolution. It also provides an opportunity for NSF to accept proposals while the internal decision-making on program details at NSF is still ongoing. Note that revamping of NSF's undergraduate STEM education investments is a complex process that spans multiple directorates with different priorities.The IUSE description is very broad, and no funding range is given. The intent is probably to provide a place for all those proposals that in the past would have been submitted to TUES, WIDER, or STEP, as well as to encourage submission of proposals that might not have fit well into one of the existing programs.
"Will STEP-like proposals be considered for IUSE funding?" Proposals that focus on recruitment and retention certainly fit within the broad IUSE framework. Assessing how competitive they will be, however, is much more difficult. The IUSE description says very little about NSF's funding priorities. We will likely have to wait to see how funding priorities are manifested in the review process, including instructions to reviewers, the distribution of proposals to review panels, and the strategies for distributing IUSE funds.
For example, STEP proposals competed only against each other. All Type 1 proposals had basically the same goals, and were evaluated within the framework established by the STEP solicitation. Funding limits were based on institution size. Furthermore, proposals were largely competing against others from the same type of institution (e.g. community colleges, four-year colleges, schools with Masters programs, and schools with Ph.D. programs). Each multidisciplinary review panel typically considered proposals from only one of these institution types, and program funds were allocated in such a way that each type of institution would likely be represented among the awards.
In TUES, on the other hand, proposal competition was typically based on discipline, and in some cases, sub-discipline. This was particularly true for TUES Type 1 and Type 2 proposals. Review panels were set up by discipline, with each panel reviewing only proposals from its own area of expertise.
We do not know how IUSE panels will be formed, or what kind of instructions reviewers will receive. How will reviewers rate proposals based on the implementation of "best practices" vs. those that focus more on "innovative" approaches? How will they compare proposals focusing on classroom and curriculum reforms with those focused on academic or financial support? To what extent will funding priorities be targeted to educational research vs. implementation? What role will a proposal's institution type play in the review process?
I suspect that the answers to these questions are still being formulated, and that they will continue to evolve through at least the first couple of rounds of funding.
You can influence NSF's priorities!
NSF's funding strategies for undergraduate education continue to change in response to both national priorities as established by political and civic leaders (and government bureaucrats, too), and to needs and demands that emerge from the science and education communities and from our nation's colleges and universities. Programs like STEP and TUES are ephemeral. Indeed, the times are always changing.
Rater than mourn the loss of STEP, I encourage you to look forward and to play a leadership role in helping NSF and DUE establish the priorities that will drive future funding. Help the STEP community identify and disseminate our collective successes (and failures!) by engaging with STEP Central's "Get to Work" initiative, and join your colleagues in a Wednesday evening session at our March meeting (More on this session later!!)