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NSF Funding Season

Posted by Aaron Price on November 23, 2010 - 9:20am

Monday, November 15, was a busy day at the AAVSO. The National Science Foundation had two deadlines for funding programs. One is the annual deadline for projects relating to astronomy research. The other is an annual deadline for projects involving empirical science education research. The NSF is funded by the US taxpayer. It's main role is to fund research in science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines (plus minor excursions into a few others such as cognitive science). The only major exception is health and human biology, which is mainly funded by the National Institute of Health.

The NSF is one of the premier funding agencies for science research. It is highly competitive, with some programs funding 10% of the proposals they receive. It is also relatively prestigious. If NSF funds research in an area it is a strong sign that the scientific community thinks that area of research is important. And, along with a somewhat decent publication history, sometimes a single large NSF award is all a new professor needs to be awarded tenure at a university. NSF awards are even sometimes accompanied with press releases celebrating them.

On behalf of the AAVSO, Janet Mattei and John Percy received an NSF award in the mid 90's to create the Hands On Astrophysics curriculum (now renamed Variable Star Astronomy). This was the first NSF award we ever received, as far as I can tell. In 2008, I led a team that wrote the proposal that funded our Citizen Sky effort for 3-years (2009-12) at 800K. In 2010, Matthew Templeton received an 49K award do a research project involving the long term visual light curves of Mira variables. You'll hear more about that project as it ramps up.

On Monday, the AAVSO turned in proposals for 3 more projects. Arne, Steve Levine and Dirk Terrell  turned in a proposal to expand APASS. It funds more equipment to expand APASS and hires a post doctoral researcher to work at the AAVSO to manage APASS and do research with its data. It's a 3-year, 660K proposal.

Matthew turned in a collaborative proposal with Dr. Michael Saladyga to expand the digitization project begun last August.  Their goal is to fully digitize all available sources of data from the literature of the 19th Century, including both the Harvard Annals and other published papers on variable stars to make these data available to the research community through the AAVSO International Database.  The project also includes proposed upgrades to the structure of the AID and the AAVSO website that will also make it possible for the researchers of today to use the AAVSO as a repository for their data as well.  It is also a 3-year proposal, requesting $389K.

I turned in a proposal to study how adults going back to school learn science. I was inspired by the ability of AAVSOers to learn advanced skills and knowledge in pursuit of their hobby and wondered if this could be applied to the more formal classroom as well. The proposal is worth 550K over 3 years and is a collaboration with the Harvard University Extension School, Northern New Mexico College, and Sierra College.

In 3 weeks the NSF Informal Science Education program's deadline arrives, for which I'm working on two proposals. The first is called 2 Eyes, 3D and is a study of stereoscopic learning in museums settings. As part of it, we propose to make a stereoscopic (3D) movie about variable stars to be played at museums and planetariums. Our partners are the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and the Boston Museum of Science. This is probably on the order of 300K for 3-years.

The second proposal is a relatively smaller one to redesign the light curve generator. I'd like to code it in a java applet so it is more interactive. For example, we'd like to add the ability to draw zoom boxes on the plots and customize colors by user. Also, we'd like to give the user the ability to flag data points you think are discrepant and evaluate points flagged by others and maybe even add some analysis components (phase diagrams, Fourier scans...). This will likely be a 150K, 1-year proposal.

It will be tough to get both proposals in on time. NSF proposals have to be perfect in order to even get a chance for funding. I had a proposal once (to design a variable star iPhone app) that was very highly reviewed by three referees yet it did not get funded at the end due to budget constraints. Thus, they take a long time to prepare. Luckily, I wrote preliminary versions of these two proposals last summer so I at least have a starting point.

I have lots of other ideas percolating and expect to compose two more proposals in the next six months. One is about presenting scientific data to the public that has uncertainty values associated with it. The other is about making a movie of the epsilon Aurigae optical interferometric discoveries. That should be it for me for a while. I expect Arne and Matt have a few more proposal ideas as well. If so, then we'll likely have at least 10 proposals submitted this year, meaning the odds are decent we'll get at least one. :)

Typically, it takes at least 6 months to be notified if your proposal was declined. Accepted ones are notified in 7-9 months and those on the border line can take around 10 months for a decision. My personal way to handle that is to just forget about the project after submission and move on!

I find writing these proposals to be very, very challenging. I usually start writing about six months before the deadline. But they are also quite rewarding. I learn a ton about the subject on which I am writing. I also enjoy the social part of assembling a collaborative team and institutions. And the requirements and constraints of an NSF proposal provides an interesting framework that requires and rewards creativity. (It's something like poetry in that regard.) The only part I don't like is the administrative aspect of getting all the contracts and letters of support in order. The budget isn't much fun either. :) 

Here's hoping we're able to bring in some funds to the AAVSO in the next year. Next November, it starts all over again!

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