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Five Questions with Enriqueta Barrera

On scientific funding, the perfect proposal, and the future of research

barrera:
Enriqueta Barrera

Enriqueta Barrera is a Program Director at the U.S. National Science Foundation where she is responsible for the Geobiology and Low-Temperature Geochemistry Program as well as the Critical Zone Observatories. She received her Ph.D. in Geology from Case Western Reserve University and was an Associate Professor at Akron University before joining NSF in 2000. She recently answered these questions for GN via email. She can be reached at ebarrera@nsf.gov.

1) What is your primary role as Program Director at NSF?

The Program Director "gets to know" the community he/she represents and seeks to learn about new directions of scientific research within the scope of the program. In addition, the Program Director is responsible for implementing the proposal review and evaluation process for the program; conducting the final review of proposals and evaluations and recommending awards or declinations based on knowledge or resource availability, program goals and peer reviewer comments; evaluating projects and activities that are proposed or funded by conducting site visits and reviewing reports; negotiating interagency agreements with other Federal agencies for transfer of funds; and overseeing funded infrastructure including Centers and Facilities.

2) How did your earlier career as a geoscientist prepare you for the challenges you face as program manager?

Prior to my arrival at the NSF in 2000, I held positions as a research scientist and a tenured faculty member at several universities after graduating from Case Western Reserve University in 1987. At CWRU, my doctoral studies supervised by Sam Savin were in the areas of paleoclimates and isotope geochemistry.

I do not know if anyone can be fully prepared for the challenges one encounters at the NSF. My experience at the NSF started in the retired Geology and Paleontology program, a complex and large program covering several disciplines, and at the time when the Biocomplexity initiative was just beginning. My involvement in these two programs and other related initiatives at the NSF provided an excellent opportunity for exposure to the frontier of research ideas and to gain experience in the management of large competitions. Managing the program requires a) a willingness to embrace challenges and new ideas; b) common sense; 3) and the capacity to be a good listener and to argue on behalf of the community. NSF's working environment is very collegial and my fellow program directors have always provided advice or assistance when needed.

3) What are the most important things you look for in proposals, reviews, and/or committee evaluations?

A good proposal is a good idea, well expressed, with a clear indication of methods for pursuing the idea, evaluating the findings, and making them known to all who need to know. The proponent needs to have a clear idea of what he/she intends to do, why the work is important, what has already been done, and how the work will be performed.

A good proposal will convey clearly to the reader this information and will have well articulated hypotheses guiding the research.

Proposals are evaluated based on two criteria: the Intellectual Merit and quality of the proposed research, and the Broader Impacts of the activity. Considerations of the former include: the importance of the research in advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields; the novelty of the research and its capacity to transform the field; the qualification of the investigator(s) to conduct the project; good organization and appropriate resources allocation. The Broader Impacts criterion deals with the promotion of teaching, training, and learning; the participation of underrepresented groups; the development of infrastructure for research and education; the benefits of the activity to society; and the dissemination of results to various groups.

4) a. What do you think have been the most exciting areas of research in low-temperature geochemistry and/or geobiology in the past decade? b. What areas of research do you think have the potential to be equally as exciting in the next ten years?

Taking the proposal submissions to the program as a point of reference, some areas of research have flourished in the past decade. Geomicrobiology, the microbial interaction/transformations of Earth's material, has become well established and mature. New techniques and tools have added to the sophistication of this research. Future transformational research in this area is likely in environmental genomics, where genomics-enabled methods are used to understand organisms' impact on their environment.

Multidisciplinary/interdisciplinary research on processes occurring in the 'Critical Zone' is an emphasis area, as an era of observatory research is established nationally and internationally. The Critical Zone is the external terrestrial layer extending from the top of the canopy to the base of the weathering zone. There is fundamental understanding of the coupling of physical, chemical and biological processes in this zone, but there is still much more to be learned. In particular, studies that integrate biologic and geologic processes have great promise.

5) According to this site, the funding rate for the Geobiology and Low-Temperature Geochemistry program was 17% in 2007 and 20% in 2008 (by contrast, over the same two-year period, the NSF as a whole was slightly higher at ~25%). Do you have any advice for young scientists starting their own research program in such a competitive field?

In reality, the funding rate for the program was slightly lower than 17% in 2007 and 20% in 2008, based upon the figures appearing in the NSF web site. Other factors are reflected in these percentages. NSF would like to achieve an average funding rate of 30%. The program does not have the resources to achieve this. Our more recent Committee of Visitors evaluating the program recommended increasing the program's budget. The slight increase in the 2008 funding rate is due to the successful competition of some of our proposals for funds of the Emerging Topics in Biogeochemical Cycles (ETBC) Opportunity, advertised at the Web site: http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2007/nsf07049/nsf07049.jsp. Another opportunity to be announced shortly, also in a "dear colleague letter", focuses on the development and/or integration of environmental models that link local, regional and global scales.

We worry about the impact that the limited support has on the disciplines covered by the program, and especially on early career researchers. This is taken into consideration when making funding decisions. My advice to early career researchers is not to get easily discouraged and to continue to submit revised proposals addressing the comments of reviewers, and in particular the panel. Talk to your program director and visit the NSF, if possible, to learn about the different programs and opportunities. The Directorate for Geosciences supports numerous workshops for early career scientists, including faculty and post-docs. Information is available at the following Web site: http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/index.html.

--NSW