A sabbatical at the foundation

Mid-career rotations at NSF open eyes, recharge batteries

by Bob Henson


Three NCAR scientists served as NSF rotators over the past several years: (left to right) Thomas Bogdan, William “Al” Cooper, and Christopher Cantrell. (Photos by Carlye Calvin.)

“It was as if the clouds parted, and I felt like I understood how the federal funding system worked for science. I saw the whole picture.”

Thomas Bogdan’s new awareness arrived not from a single “Eureka!” moment but from two years at NSF headquarters. A solar physicist who’d spent nearly 20 years at NCAR, Bogdan moved to suburban Washington, D.C., in late 2002 to serve as a program officer. His so-called “rotator” position is one of many at NSF that give researchers from academia and elsewhere a close-up view of how federal science works.

About one in four of NSF’s 150 program officers are rotators, staying for one to three years. Like their permanent counterparts, the rotators sift through hundreds of proposals each year. They find reviewers, convene review panels, and ultimately award grants to about 30% of the applicants. It’s not the cushiest of jobs—the hours are long and demands are high—but alumni of the program say it’s an invaluable experience.

“If you have an interest in the bigger process of science, it’s a great opportunity,” says Peter Milne, a marine and atmospheric chemist from the University of Miami. “You get to see how the appropriations system works and how the science budgets are put together.”

The benefits run both ways, according to NSF staff. Rotators keep fresh blood flowing into these intensely demanding jobs, and they bring new perspectives to the agency. “We value the rotator positions and would not want to see them become permanent positions,” says Jarvis Moyers, head of NSF’s atmospheric sciences directorate, which now employs five rotators.

Most rotators are midway through their careers, with enough experience to serve as good judges of proposal quality and enough youthful energy to handle the workload. The trick is finding people who can break away from campus or lab commitments and rearrange their family lives when a position opens up. “Oftentimes we’ll have gaps of three or six months, sometimes as much as a year, because we can’t find the right person or the timing isn’t right,” says Moyers.

The stars aligned nicely in 2002 for atmospheric chemist Bruce Doddridge (University of Maryland), now in his third year as a rotator. “My group had a very solid funding base, and a couple of students had defended their Ph.D.s around the time the announcement was posted. So I thought if I was going to explore other career lines, this was a good time to do it.” Doddridge and his family already lived in the Washington metro area, albeit on the other side of town. “I have a two-hour commute each way, ” he notes. “But I have a lot of proposals to read, so I have plenty of time to do that.”

Bogdan is one of three NCAR scientists who have served as rotators over the past three years. Before going to NSF, says Bogdan, “I’d gotten to this interesting place in research life. The problems I knew how to do, I wasn’t interested in doing, and the other problems I didn’t know how to do.” Cloud physicist William “Al” Cooper also wanted to shake things up. “I felt I was falling out of touch with my own research field, and I needed to do something to get back in touch. I suspected—rightly, it turns out—that this would be a really good way to do that.” As a rotator, he says, “You are looking at proposals from the best people in leading-edge science.”

Cooper, who handled physical meteorology at NSF, found himself branching from cloud physics into boundary-layer meteorology and atmospheric electricity, among other fields. He calls the experience “a wonderful refresher course.”

For scientists keen on interdisciplinary and interagency work, the rotator slots offer a chance to test the waters. “We meet routinely with program directors from other agencies. You can’t buy that kind of inside perspective,” says Doddridge. Atmospheric chemist Christopher Cantrell, another recent rotator from NCAR, learned about other disciplines within the agency itself. “I found it stimulating professionally and intellectually just to talk with folks from different programs. I think it’s really helpful that all of NSF sits in one building and none of these programs are very far away physically.”

Most rotator slots are governed by the Intergovernmental Personnel Act. That means rotators continue to receive paychecks, health insurance, and other standard benefits through their home institutions, which are reimbursed by NSF. The act also guarantees that rotators have a job waiting for them when they return. Still, alumni say it’s good to make sure your colleagues are comfortable with the arrangement before you dive in. “Some institutions think it’s a good thing for their staff to do. Others are fairly dismissive,” says Milne. “You do tend to have you put your own scientific career on hold for a while.”

Now back at NCAR, Cooper returns in July to his post as head of the center’s Advanced Study Program, where he plans to share his newfound perspective with ASP postdocs. “One of the things they are concerned about is how to participate in the proposal and grant cycle. Now I feel I’m in a really good position to provide advice to them on how to construct a research proposal and work with the NSF system,” Cooper says.

When Doddridge returns to his university post, he expects to be well equipped for his next round of proposal writing. “After reading around 200 proposals and a thousand peer reviews each year, I think I could write a pretty good NSF grant,” he says.


Secrets of the funded

From the knowledge gleaned by rotators, here are some tips for scientists pitching proposals to NSF:

  • Don’t worry about which directorate gets your proposal. “The system works really well in trying to find a home for things if they’re submitted to the wrong place,” says William Cooper. “People shouldn’t be so concerned about that.”

  • Talk to your program officer in advance. “That’s essential,” says Thomas Bogdan. “Don’t just send in a rough draft with ‘What do you think?’ scribbled across the front.” With some 40,000 proposals reaching NSF each year, a personal heads-up helps orient the program officer, and he or she may be able to provide useful suggestions. “This front-end work makes for better proposals, and it makes the program director’s job easier,” says Christopher Cantrell.

  • Read the guidelines. Failure to comply with the NSF Grant Proposal Guide could significantly delay peer review and thus the final decision on your proposal.

  • Do your bit. Participate in the NSF peer review system by reviewing proposals sent to you and offering to serve on review panels when asked. “For all its purported faults, the peer-review system works best when it receives the broadest base of participation,” says Peter Milne.


Also in this issue:

Going to extremes

Up close with Caribbean cumulus

Face time across the miles

New division directors at NCAR

Slick roads meet their match

President’s Corner - India in 2005 and the legacy of MONEX

Science Bit - Liquid at work on Saturn’s largest moon

UCAR Community Calendar