NSF Bio Directorate announces cancellation of #DDIG program

NSF’s Directorate of Biological Sciences just announced that they are getting rid of the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG) program. Current DDIGs are not affected, but they will not be accepting future DDIG proposals. This is really sad to me, as this was such a great way for students to get experience with writing NSF grant proposals and it was an important source of funding for many graduate students. It also surprises me, since I’d always heard the return on investment (ROI) was amazing for this program. It’s certainly labor intensive on NSF’s part (even though the grants are small, it still required lining up panelists and holding a panel*), but I’d also heard that the bang-for-the-buck was really high for these proposals. They typically funded one small(ish) project that was pretty likely to succeed (or else it wouldn’t have been competitive), usually covering things like supplies and sequencing or other analyses, but not the grad student’s stipend.

I realize that the current state of funding makes it so that NSF has to make difficult decisions (and I have been doing my part to try to advocate for increased funding for NSF). But it’s still really disappointing to see that this program is going to go away. I was going to include this as a Friday link, but split it out into it’s own post to highlight it more and to give a place for people to brainstorm about whether it might be possible to save the program (and to discuss whether doing so is desirable). There’s also a lively discussion going on on twitter, some of it using the #DDIG hashtag.

*I served on the DDIG panel twice and it was my favorite panel to be on — there were always so many great ideas.

Update: Here’s a new Medium post (my first!) I wrote related to NSF’s proposed budget.

Update 2: NSF’s DEBrief blog just posted about the cancellation of the DDIG program.

Update 3: Updated to make it clear that this is referring to the Biological Science Directorate’s DDIG program.

28 thoughts on “NSF Bio Directorate announces cancellation of #DDIG program

  1. I had a DDIG (back in the early 1990s) and it was terrific. It wasn’t just the money, which was small ($9K if I remember correctly). It taught me about writing grants, about planning work. It established me, in my own mind, as a funded scientist. It became part of my CV demonstrating funding ability. It’s hard to exaggerate how much this helped shape me as an ECR. That’s a huge payoff to NSF; they didn’t just fund some good science, but also made a big contribution to my growth as a scientist. And it cost NSF almost nothing – except, as Meg says, the cost of running the competition. But then, regular competitions have the same cost.

    More generally than just DDIG, this seems to me to be going the wrong direction. I’ve argued before (and I’m not the only one) that we’d get more bang for our granting buck by giving smaller grants to more scientists. NSF has trended in the opposite direction. I understand that the overall allocation is limited (too small!), but axing a bunch of small grants to preserve a small number of big ones just seems wrongheaded to me.

  2. My initial gut reaction is some combination of “how sad!” and “surely DDIG had a higher ROI than most other NSF programs?” But then I thought that (i) the folks who run NSF are smart and good-willed, not dumb and evil, and (ii) I don’t actually know how much the DDIG program costs to run, or how much money it pays out, or what else NSF could spend the money on instead. So I don’t feel like I have much to contribute to this discussion, but I do think it’s an important discussion to have.

    I’ll also add that I think (hope?) that one can both argue for increased NSF funding, and have difficult discussions about the optimal allocation of NSF funding.

    • You wrote: “I think (hope?) that one can both argue for increased NSF funding, and have difficult discussions about the optimal allocation of NSF funding.” Definitely! One thing I would be curious to know is how often the funding went to people in labs with other NSF funding (and, in those cases, how different the student project was, though admittedly the latter would be hard to quantify).

      And, yes, I agree that the people who made this decision are smart and have the best interests of the scientific community in mind. Still, the decision surprised me, and, based on the social media reactions so far, I am far from alone.

      • how often the funding went to people in labs with other NSF funding I’m really curious about this, as there are divisions at NSF that do not do DDIGs as they state that they already fund those students on larger grants to PIs. For example, I was never eligible as my work was Biological Oceanography focused, and OCE doesn’t do DDIGs for that reason. If DDIGs were going towards already funded labs, then, well, maybe we all just need to up our budgets for more graduate support to compensate, and the outcome will be the same? Not saying that’s the way it should work (it shouldn’t), but it might have been what was already happening in effect?

        That said, boooo. I think ScientistSeesSquirrel’s comment is particularly on the nose about why these were so important (and why I was bummed I could not apply for one!)

    • “I’ll also add that I think (hope?) that one can both argue for increased NSF funding, and have difficult discussions about the optimal allocation of NSF funding.”

      Though barely reported upon anymore, the US federal government exists in a post-sequestration age. I wish you well in arguing for increased NSF funding while also saying “rots-a-ruck” with that.

  3. That is sad to hear.

    I guess the two thoughts running through my mind are:
    1) I believe I read about NSF having contingency plans in place in response to Trump’s proposed slashing of NSF. I am wondering if it is related to that. Albeit Trump’s budget is only proposed to date with some real hope congress will reverse it. So maybe not. But the budget climate could be influencing decisions more indirectly as well.
    2) The dear colleague letter does explicitly mention workload as a reason for this decision. I understand that as an on the ground reality for NSF at the present time that may necessarily drive decisions. But it takes me back to more meta questions about whether the very low funding rates and resulting very high reviewer burdens to fund a handful of proposals is really tenable or if we have reached a breaking point in the system, possibly driving a fixed amount of funds to fewer and fewer people, that needs a fundamental rethink.

  4. If memory serves (and it may not), I think NSERC in Canada has gone through something similar over the years. Cutting back on other programs so as to protect what are seen as the “core” programs like the Discovery Grant program.

    Note that NSERC doesn’t have an equivalent of DDIGs, so that in NSERC’s case the cuts fell on other programs, including the NSERC equivalent of NSF’s graduate fellowships. Which gets back to the question: if you don’t want to see DDIGs go, what should be cut instead? Some other program that directly supports grad students, like the graduate fellowships? A core research granting program? Or what? And don’t say “free up money by finding administrative efficiencies”, because my understanding is that NSF is already a very lean and efficient agency. They don’t have a ton of dispensable administrators running around doing nothing but creating makework for other people.

  5. Just want to give a few thoughts as someone who will now be one of the final recipients of the DDIG (just got an index number a couple weeks ago).

    I think the DDIG fills an important niche in funding for doctoral students. It is one of the few grants I know of which offers a substantial (for a PhD student) funding for a project at the point in a doctoral student’s career when they have significant experience in their system. By the time I had developed my DDIG project, I had 4 seasons in my field system and had performed several experiments. These led to critical insights that made my DDIG project feasible. In fact, one of the key methodological insights for my DDIG proposal came the summer before the proposal was due! In short, it allows a student to synthesize ~3-4 years of work in the field, lab, and simply in thought to develop a project (I imagine that is why the return on investment is likely to be high) for which the student unlikely be able to find funding for in another form. Because of this, I think my DDIG project is the first project I have ever developed where I have thought, ‘If everything works out as intended, this is a Nature/Science paper’.

    On another note, this was my first experience writing an NSF-style proposal, which was definitely eye opening. Beyond writing the proposal, the process also gave me insight into mechanics behind applying for and receiving an NSF grant. I had to submit and have the budget approved by the university, had to work with the university research office on their review of the proposal, and learned how to budget for things like hiring undergraduate research assistants. On the NSF side, by talking to the program officer, I learned a lot about how NSF grants are evaluated and, once an award offer is made, the steps through which the grant turns into money with an index number at the university.

    I do understand that NSF is constantly under pressure to make the most of the funding they have and I imagine they are worried about possible cuts coming in October. I certainly don’t feel like I know enough about the process to see where potential cuts could be made to save the program, but I do know that it is sad to think that I will be one of the last researchers to go through the process and get funded …

    In response to a couple posts above:

    To Meghan on DDIG’s going to labs that already have NSF funding: I don’t know about other DDIG recipients, but our lab currently has one NSF grant for a project that is totally unrelated to my work (the NSF grant is for stream work with sculpin, while my dissertation is on intertidal whelks). I do however have a GRFP which has helped me immensely.

    To Jarrett Byrnes on DDIG’s not funding marine work: I had heard and it was explicitly stated on the DEB website that DDIG’s did not fund marine work. However, I knew of a few people who had gotten them to do intertidal work. I emailed the program officer before I applied explaining my project (how does foraging behavior influence community stability) and that it would be in the intertidal and the program officer told me that in my case it was fine and encouraged me to apply. From what I have gathered, DEB was willing to fund some marine work through DDIG’s as long as that work was very ecology theory driven and that the focus wasn’t on the marine system itself. That’s just what I’ve gathered from other marine proposals I’ve seen funded and my own (granted the intertidal is terrestrial half the time :P). Unfortunately, I guess none of this matters anymore.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment!

  6. Anyone know if NSF publishes diversity demographics of DDIG or GRFP recipients? DDIG supported international students and GRFP only is restricted to only US citizens. Right there you are shutting the door on diversity in US biology institutions.

  7. On the subject of Meghan’s comment above ” One thing I would be curious to know is how often the funding went to people in labs with other NSF funding (and, in those cases, how different the student project was, though admittedly the latter would be hard to quantify).” —

    I am a DDIG recipient and plan to file my dissertation in a few weeks. My research is not at all funded by my advisors, and had I not received the DDIG, I would have had to dramatically scale back my work. I worry that the lack of DDIG availability for students like me is going to continue a trend away from a Ph.D. being training to conduct independent research because students will now need to be funded off of their advisor’s funds, and therefore be pursuing their advisor’s (employer’s?) ideas and priorities.

    • I agree – the notion that we’ll just encourage PIs to fund independent research doesn’t work for me either. It will almost certainly have the effect of reducing grad-students doing independent research with all the implications for training that has. It also means “does my prospective adviser get grants” is now going to be a key factor in which advisers and institutions prospective grad student chooses. And it will penalize great students who happen not to have an adviser with a grant.

    • Yes! The loss of independence for PhD students is exactly what worries me most about this cut.

      In the department where I earned my PhD, earning a DDIG was a core goal for all PhD students from day one. In many ways it defined the way we were trained. Many of us took a grant-writing course in our first or second year that culminated in the first draft of our DDIG. When we presented our dissertation plans to our committees, we explicitly considered our core dissertation proposal vs. our plans to expand this research with a DDIG. Some advisors asked students to submit a DDIG proposal alongside their dissertation proposal during qualifying exams. Given the review requirements for the DDIG program, an underlying question throughout this process was always: “how is your dissertation distinctive from your advisor’s research program?” By constantly considering this question, we made independence a core focus of our graduate training. I strongly believe that this focus on independence made us all better researchers in the long run. Will PhD programs continue to make independence a requirement for earning a degree after the DDIG is gone, even if students must rely on funds from their advisors? I really hope so, but it’s undeniable that the DDIG helped to reinforce this culture in my department.

      • Reading this and other comments along the same lines makes me appreciate the Canadian funding system. My students’ research expenses all come from my grant. But that doesn’t limit their independence at all because I’m free to spend my grant money on whatever I want. It’s a grant to support my research program, not a specific project.

        So I guess my question is: how much flexibility do PIs funded by project-based grants from NSF (and other sources) have to give their students independence? I’m guessing the answer is not “zero” but not “infinite” either. I emphasize that I’m asking about legitimate flexibility, not “to what extent can PIs lie through their teeth about what they’re spending their grant money on and get away with it?” For instance, you have money to send students out into the field to do whatever your project-based grant says you’ll do, but while they’re out there they can also do the student’s independently-designed project.

  8. Something else to think about: I know job committees (for asst prof spots at least) often use DDIGs as an indicator of a candidate’s ability to attract funding. Most folks applying for Asst. Prof spots are unable to apply to NSF as a PI on their own grant, so really a DDIG is one of the only ways a candidate can show that they can secure funding. Do you think this will make it even harder for committees to sift through applicants (at least, in the future after current DDIG recipients leave the market) and/or put even more emphasis solely on publications?

    • I wouldn’t make too big a deal of this. Whether or not a faculty job applicant got a DDIG is just one factor among many in hiring decisions. Search committees will still have other ways to project applicants’ abilities to get grants and run independent research programs.

    • I agree with Jeremy. In search committees I’ve been on publication record mattered much more than grant record precisely because there aren’t many opportunities for grants at those very early stages. And to the extent committees looked at grants, generic evidence of pursuing grants (e.g. departmental and society awards) mattered as much as a DDIG.

  9. Thinking back to my own long-ago time in grad school, I was very independent even though I never got a DDIG or other independently-obtained grant of my own. My research was paid for by my adviser’s NSF grant. But one chunk of that grant was my project, which I’d developed myself (with my adviser’s and committee’s feedback, of course). How common is that, not just with NSF grants but with any project-based grant?

  10. These comments may have already been expressed on Twitter by others, but here they are anyway.

    Yes, the DDIG program takes as much work to coordinate for NSF as regular grant panels, based on the number of applicants cited in the Dear Colleague letter. However, if each DDIG only provides one publication, then there will be roughly 130 publications based on the DEB Blog funded by $1.6M. Pretty sure that 1 pub/DDIG is a low estimate. Anyway, that’s ~$12,000/pub which of course is also about the average DDIG award.

    DEB core programs will award $72M in about 200 grants, based on their RFP. Those are standard grants, small grants, RUI, and some other categories. Simple average grant award would be $360,000. Each award would have to produce 30 publications to get the same return on investment as a DDIG, assuming that publication count is a reasonable scale for ROI.

    The alternative options listed in the Dear Colleagues letter don’t support international students, as noted above by kmander and so they don’t help develop a diverse workforce in research and don’t comply with the idea from the current Congress/Admin that highly-skilled immigrants are still encouraged to come to the US. While this point can be expanded in many ways, I’ll just note the hypocrisy and move on.

    Jeremy asked about flexibility above, and his guess was my answer and practice: “… you have money to send students out into the field to do whatever your project-based grant says you’ll do, but while they’re out there they can also do the student’s independently-designed project.” My approach is that if a PhD student can’t develop an add on to one of my projects, then they shouldn’t work for me. Also that as I attempt to be a good advisor, having add on projects by my students is critical both for their development and fulfilling my responsibilities. I know of some professors who just assign parts of grants to students with no expectation or desire that add on projects be developed, but I think that’s poor practice.

    While I attempt to harness my cynicism, I cannot help but note that cutting off funding for DDIG and independent PhD projects, while also squeezing research funding in general, is a good way to reduce the glut of PhDs we’ve heard about. Technicians are cheaper, at least in my institution, on an hourly basis.

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  13. The decision to end BIO DDIGs only affects eco/evo/organismal research — only DEB and IOS participated in the program, not DBI or MCB. Has anyone heard anything about how resources (time or money) will be plowed back into DEB or IOS because of this cut? This isn’t just a blow for training and young researchers’ ideas coming to fruition, this is a blow for our kind of research.

  14. As a quick follow up, I spoke to one of the NSF DEB program officers last week. Mostly the discussion was about another topic, but I did mention the #DDIG issue. The response was that the decision was really about workload and apparently came from a level above the program officers. Grant proposal submissions of all types in DEB have continued to increase, but staffing has (of course) not increased, despite requests. So with more work to do and the same or fewer people to do it, something had to give. DDIG was it, though there could be more. You can’t do more with less, you can only do less with less. This is an example.

    The option would be to cut something else from the DEB core program portfolio or to make things significantly less work to review. What else would you cut? Supplementals? LTER? LTREB? RCN? Limit grant proposals/PI even more?

    I suppose you could eliminate panels from DDIG and just rely external reviewers. Even with remote panels you only eliminate the travel organization, not the rest of the logistical work…

  15. I sent the following to NSF and present it here as it expands on many f the thoughts expressed already. Also, none of the 6 DDIGs I have had a part in were either on the same system as a regular grant or held at the time I held a regular grant. Few of these projects would have been done in the same way without DDIG. My letter was written before I learned of the workload explanation. I believe workload may have been too much, but I also do not think NSF evaluated the impact of DDIGs sufficiently. It is BY FAR the most effective program for achieving the goals of NSF that I know. It really is a tragedy it has been cancelled, and I am not convinced the folks at NSF were willing to be creative to save it.

    My letter:
    Dear Dr. Gert de Couet,

    I write to express my dismay that OIS (and DEB) have cancelled the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant program. I was a recipient of a DDIG as a graduate student, and I have had 5 students of my own receive one. I strongly believe that the DDIG program was the most effective use of funds at NSF, and that this decision is a serious mistake with far-reaching consequences. Let me explain.

    First, there should be good evidence out there that the DDIG has been the most efficient use of grant dollars at NSF. I illustrate with my own case. I have one student with an active DDIG right now, so I will leave her out of these calculations. The remaining 5 of us received ~$51,500. Sixteen publications were supported by these funds, or just ~$3200 per publication. Moreover, these 16 publications are not weak contributions; currently they have 1488 citations in total. I do not believe my data are unusual, and so no matter what the cost to run the DDIG program, this is a substantially more efficient use of funds per product than any other research-oriented program at NSF.

    The dollars per publication metric is a more relevant evaluation of efficiency than dollars awarded/total dollars budgeted by NSF, but it was not the most important benefit of the DDIG program. DDIGs had a substantial impact on the careers of students receiving them. Mine led directly into a post-doc, which lead directly to my first regular NSF grant, which lead to my current job. Moreover, the process of preparing the proposal and then receiving the award was been a major boost to the confidence and professionalism of all the recipients I know. The value of this to individuals and to the human resources in U.S. science has been incalculable.

    A third widespread benefit of the DDIG program was the impact of its presence on graduate programs. In ours, students write a DDIG-like proposal for their qualifying exam, with the clear aspiration that they should submit the proposal afterwards. Even students who do not submit DDIGs benefit from that process, and while we mentors can attempt to teach students how to write good proposals, without the crowning target of the DDIG, and the discipline-representative feedback that results, this will become much more difficult. I think the general quality of grant-writing will decline in the future because of this decision.

    Finally, I would note the irony of what you have done. My current grants have many thousands of dollars devoted to broader impacts, primarily to introduce young students to the joys of doing research. Presumably a major goal is for them to seek becoming professional scientists. But, it is an odd circumstance that NSF supports their introduction but does not provide any research support for them to continue as a graduate student (and incidentally, as a post-doc). To use the analogy of pipelines, you are supporting a pump feeding badly leaking pipes and this decision makes them leak even more.

    Moreover, the students most affected are those who are the most creative and ambitious, since they are likely to design projects that are not covered by their adviser’s funding. No other program at NSF supports the research of independently-minded students, yet these students are likely to be the movers of our field in the future. Such students now have fewer options than they did.

    In sum, this decision is a big mistake. I sat on a DDIG panel about 15 years ago when we were asked then about the wisdom of cancelling it. The issue was that the costs of running the program were as much or more than the dollars awarded. The panel was unanimous in viewing that a silly way to evaluate a program. What matters is the impact on the field of the total dollars NSF spends. The DDIG has by far the biggest impact, despite the cost/awards ratio. In my case, I would gladly receive 15+% less in my regular grants to support this program.

    Deeply discouraged,

    David F. Westneat

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