6/21/22 – Virtual Office Hours Recap – Training Programs

On June 21, 2022, program officers from the Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI) within the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) held a virtual office hour session discussing some of the training programs in BIO, including Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), NSF Research Traineeship (NRT), and Research and Mentoring for Postbaccalaureates in Biological Sciences (RaMP).

The staff provided a brief overview of each program and were available for questions. If you have project-specific questions, please reach out to a DBI program officer (and if you are an awardee, please contact your cognizant program officer).

The slides from this Office Hour are available here:

RaMP

Q:  Will there be a call for RaMP proposals again this year for sure? If yes, would the deadline be in January 2023 again?

A: Please look for a new solicitation this fall (2022). The revised solicitation will be released pending availability of funding.

Q:  How exactly is “recent” defined for college graduates eligible for a RaMP opportunity?

Please read the current solicitation for participant eligibility requirements. In general, you should think of the participant cohort members as having recently graduated from college (already in possession of their degrees at the start of their experience as required in the solicitation) and that you are preparing them for the next phase of their careers. If you have further questions, please email a program officer for advice.

Q: From the RaMP proposals this year did it appear that reviewers were more favorable toward broad research questions that helped build big networks or more focused research themes with a smaller, cohesive network?

A: While we cannot discuss proposals or aspects of the reviews, a full list of awarded projects is available at nsf.gov. We will have more information on this after the announcement of a new solicitation. You can also email us at ramp@nsf.gov.

Q: Can you define “few to no research or training experiences”?

A: While we cannot envision all the recruitment scenarios for any given proposal, the program is designed to benefit those baccalaureates who might not otherwise pursue a STEM career due to a lack of experience and training in these disciplines to date; filling this gap is an objective of the RaMP program. Please consult the solicitation guidelines and/or contact a program officer.

Q: Can you identify the most common problems with the first round of RaMP proposals?

A: Please remember that the proposals are reviewed according to NSF criteria (including that which is specific to the RaMP program) and that these are all stated in the solicitation. We hope to have future webinars that will discuss the RaMP program in more depth.

Q: Do the reviewers look for previous collaborative activities between institutions, or are new interactions viewed favorably?

A: In most cases you see a little bit of both because you are putting people together who have existing partnerships and then maybe you have new ones that will serve new roles. Typically, these networks are broad enough that you need to do some of both.

Q: Is tuition for classes covered by the program?

A: We recommend looking at the current solicitation on that topic but the idea behind the RaMP program is that the postbaccalaureates have a meaningful experience in research; it is not designed to recruit participants and then put them into classes in preparation for graduate school.

Q: Can the scientific theme revolve around a single experimental model?

A: That might be the case but remember that we are looking for broad, cogent themes. If they are not broad enough, it may create difficulties in your ability to put together a collaborative network of colleagues. Please contact a program officer in order to receive advice on this subject.

Q:  If a single mentor/lab is at a different Institution, does that mean that this mentor/lab receives a subaward?

A: It might mean that, but it depends upon how you set up your network. We have seen variations on that point, including subawards.

REU

Q: Given that we start to review REU candidates in February for summer REU slots, if we are applying for renewal, when would we hear if we are successful in receiving the renewal?

A: Around January we begin contacting awardees so you should have ample time to do recruitment.

Q: What do reviewers and program directors consider to be sufficient monetary institutional buy-in?

A: First, you should know that cost-sharing is prohibited so institutional buy-in is typically non-monetary. For example, you might provide space for the program or a coordinator that is institutionally supported. An administrator (e.g., a dean) might put resources into the program in order to support one or more additional students. Whatever your institution can afford to provide is fine, although space for students to meet is probably the minimum that an institution should provide.

Q: For REU proposals, are faculty stipends allowed for mentoring the summer undergraduates?

A: These are limited (per the solicitation) although we do provide a research allowance for each student. If you have a ten-student program, at $2,000 apiece, that is $20,000 of support that mentors can use to buy supplies and small, disposable pieces of equipment. If you have further questions, please email a program officer for advice.

Q: Is there an optimum number of student participants for a successful REU Site program?

A: The maximum we have seen is 12 but it really depends on your comfort level, the available housing space, and other factors that relate to how many participants you want to train. The most common range is between eight and ten students.

Q: For an REU, is staff salary support an allowable cost? They would support advertising the program, coordinating application review, arranging student accommodations, etc.

A: The solicitation states that a maximum of one month salary is allowed. You therefore have to be careful if a PI plans to request summer salary as well. So, for example, a PI could ask for half a month and the other half of the month can be distributed to other people who will be involved in conducting the program. So, it is allowable to request salary for a staff member, but you need to make sure that you do not go over one month of salary support.

Q:  Can you address a few of the pros and cons of submitting a multi-institutional REU?

A: A pro would be that you now have a larger cohort of mentors, so each of the institutions can provide faculty mentors. Another pro would be collaborative arrangements that can help the individual research programs or the faculty participating in them. Submitting such a proposal also allows each institution to be recognized as an awardee. The cons include that it can be more difficult to organize and coordinate a multi-institutional program as opposed to a single institution REU Site where you are only having to deal with one financial office, etc. 

Q: Please elaborate on what you meant by linking up with minority serving institutions for recruitment?

A: REU Sites, in general, are very good mechanisms to create opportunities for students who have had few hands-on research experiences. REU Sites, with its focus on effective mentoring, provides an excellent opportunity for cohort-based training approaches that have been shown to benefit students who are also from underrepresented groups. Therefore, you should recruit from across the entire United States and include smaller schools such as community colleges, predominantly undergraduate institutions, and minority-serving institutions such as HBCUs and Tribal Colleges.

Q:  When considering an REU theme, should we craft it to ensure that it does not overlap with other REUs in our state, region, or the country?

A: We have approximately 140 active Site awards in BIO, and there are no two of these that have the same content as far as the scientific focus. As such, you do not need to worry about what is already funded but, instead, look at what scientific theme makes sense for your own situation. If you have further questions, please email a program officer for advice.

Q: Can we include cost in the budget for an external consultant to give a professional development workshop for the students?

A: It is unusual to make such a request since the workshops for enhancing such skills are usually given by faculty members involved in the project. However, if you must hire a consultant to do this activity then it can be allowed with justification. Please keep in mind that most of the cost of your budget must be dedicated to students.

Q: Do all PIs involved need to have NSF funding?

A: What reviewers look for is whether or not faculty mentors are actively engaged in research. One way to determine this engagement is whether or not the faculty members are publishing and/or presenting in their disciplines. For example, we have given awards to tribal and community colleges without large external funding portfolios as long as the faculty mentors are actively engaged in research.

Q:  Can we spend part of our budget for an honorarium in order to bring in a speaker from another city?

A: You can do this if you wish to do so but keep in mind that there are many cost-saving approaches to doing so (e.g., Zoom). You must justify this cost and ensure that there is no such existing expertise among the faculty mentors at your institution. There is guidance on the maximum allowable cost per student to help guide this decision.

Q: For smaller institutions without consistent access to larger grants with summer salary, how can an REU be supported without significant summer stipends for mentors?

A: The primary reason for limiting these salaries is to make sure that the budgets that we have can support as many awards as possible. But if you can justify why you need faculty salary in order for you to recruit mentors, then you should do so.

Q: Would NSF consider supporting an REU site project that supports a year-long research program with fewer numbers of students?

A: The issue with a year-long program is that remote students are not able to participate during the academic year. (All of the BIO-funded REU Site programs are conducted in the summer.) However, we realize the importance of continuing the research experience. Therefore, once you get the award, if you want students to continue the research experience through the academic year, we can provide that type of supplemental funding but it is not built into the regular format of the program. If you have further questions on this topic, please email your program officer for advice.

Q:  Can REU PIs or Co-PIs take $0 for salary?

A: If you want to put in a proposal that has zero request for salary that is perfectly acceptable.

Q: We can include a budget for external professionals for mentor training, correct?

A: Yes. In fact, mentor training is one of the elements that has become very typical in competitive proposals. Mentor training does not just mean the faculty mentors and includes any graduate students and/or postdocs that the students will encounter.

NRT

Q:  How many Co-PIs are the maximum allowed for the NRT proposal?

A: The program allows 10 core team members including 4 co-PIs.

Q: Can the lead evaluator originate outside of the home university?

A: The lead evaluator can be internal or external as long as unbiased evaluation is proposed.

Q: Would the Program Coordinator be one of the PIs or Senior Personnel, or someone else?

A: Program Coordinators are generally not a co-PI.

Q: Can an REU be integrated into an NRT on related topics?

A: The program typically funds graduate students but please contact a program officer if you have specific questions about this topic.

Q: Can the project evaluator be the same person as the lead evaluator?

A: The answer is yes; the program allows 10 core team members, which includes the PI and co-PIs and at least five others, one of whom must be named as the lead evaluator. This evaluator can be external or internal. If this is an internal evaluator, then be sure that this is clearly stated in the evaluation section and how you would ensure the role is unbiased.

Q: Will the proposal team members need to determine the Independent Advisory Committee?

A: Your project team should propose this Advisory Committee.

Q: Regarding the budget, can the PI, co-PIs, senior personnel, lead evaluator, and external collaborators be allowed summer salaries?

A: You can have salaries for the PIs and team members; you will obviously budget for the evaluator as well. If you also have to provide some compensation to the external advisory committee members then you could include that as well, as long as all those expenses are properly justified.

Q: Is the Program Coordinator chosen from one of the Senior Personnel?

A: Not necessarily, and most of the time the Program Coordinator has not yet been selected so you could just talk about why that might be the case since this is not one of the ten core team members; core team members are basically running your program, including training and mentoring the mentees.

Q: Can you provide some examples of what a convergent versus interdisciplinary research theme would be?

A: The convergence is like an extended version of interdisciplinary teams. As an example, biologists might work together with the data scientists and computer scientists to understand how complex tissues build themselves. In addition, how do we manage multimodal data to build models and what is the logical way to integrate expertise for various disciplines to address societal challenges? That is what convergence research is all about.

Q: Can you provide more specific guidance regarding project evaluation?  Is there a minimum or maximum budget percentage for evaluation?

A: If you have an internal evaluator make sure you clearly explain how you will ensure unbiased, qualified evaluator. In terms of budget,  we have seen budgets in the range of $100,000 to $200,000 over five years. Please consider putting together a one-page summary and get in touch with a program officer to talk to you about this topic.

Q: Are there opportunities for international graduate students to participate in any training program?

A: Tuition and stipends for NSF-funded projects are restricted to U.S. citizen green card holders but, in the case of NRT, one might have two groups of trainees with both funded and non-funded trainees; non-funded trainees can get research or training allowance for participation in various activities although they will not be able to get stipend or tuition support. Please contact a program officer with questions about this subject.

Other

Q: Is terms of how NSF defines diversity, is religious diversity considered?

A: Religious diversity is not one of the pieces of data that NSF collects. However, if you are trying to make a case in your proposal that you are contributing to broadening participation of groups underrepresented in STEM then you could consider it.

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