The Scientist blog reports that a representative of the National Science Foundation (NSF) was at the annual meeting of the America Society for Cell Biology (ASCB). The NSF representative pointed out a couple of things things:
If your proposal describes research designed to find a cure for some disease, the NSF will not fund it. Well, duh! The NSF is about funding basic research. If you want to cure diseases, go ask the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for money. Research about human diseases and human health are not fundable by the NSF.
If your lab is well funded, don’t expect the NSF to fund your proposal. I’ve heard from top-notch scientists about NSF proposals that received multiple excellent reviews, but were not funded because the lab had too much money.
These are important points. First of all, both of these appear to stem from the fact that the NSF has much less money to divvy out than the NIH. The NIH has a budget of nearly $30 billion, while the NSF has around $6 million. The NIH funds biomedical research only, while the NSF must fund many different types of scientific research — biology, chemistry, physics, etc.
With such a diverse range of topics it must fund and much less money than the NIH with which to fund it, it makes sense that the NSF would shy away from funding research that the NIH would fund. Why “waste” their limited budget on projects that should be funded by the much richer granting agency?
Also, the NSF receives many more proposals than they can fund, and they must come up with creative ways to decide who gets funded. Many top-notch proposals will get turned down, so the NSF ensures that labs with less funding get the money that is necessary to keep their research projects above water. A well-funded lab will not be as drastically affected by an unfunded NSF proposal, but a lab that is just scratching by will suffer if their equally rated proposal does not get funded.