Amber Story of the National Science Foundation

The Deputy Director of the Division of Behavioral & Cognitive Sciences talks about opportunities for psychologists at NSF

Amber Story After serving for six years as director of the social psychology program at the National Science Foundation, Amber Story became Deputy Director of NSF’s Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) in October, 2009. BCS supports research in psychology, anthropology, linguistics, geography, and related fields. Dr. Story received her Ph.D. in social psychology from Cornell University and held several academic positions before joining NSF.

Dr. Story sat down for an interview with APA’s Heather O'Beirne Kelly and Howard Kurtzman on July 7, 2010. Here are excerpts from their discussion.


APA: Welcome. To start, what’s new at NSF? 

Dr. Story: For one thing, we have a new head of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE), which includes the BCS Division. That’s Myron Guttman, who came to NSF from the University of Michigan last fall. Dr. Guttman really wants to engage the staff, advisory committees, and the overall scientific community about what our sciences will look like in the long term, over the next ten to twenty years, and then identify what we need to do to get there. He’s very much interested in new approaches, new perspectives.

We are also likely to have a new NSF director this year. The President has nominated Subra Suresh, dean of engineering at MIT, and we are awaiting Senate action on the nomination.

Within BCS, we are working on a strategic plan that will set our course for the next few years. We want it to be a living document, something we will continue to address and revise in the future.

NSF will also come out with a Foundation-wide strategic plan. Among the themes in that plan will be the need to support a merit review process that identifies the very best science, including projects that can truly transform a field. The plan will also likely focus on training, learning, and mentoring at all stages of scientists’ careers.

In addition to the standing BCS programs, there are new funding opportunities for interdisciplinary research on the environment, climate change, and sustainability that pay close attention to the role of human behavior. For example, a new solicitation called Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (SEES) is one that psychologists should know about.

Another notable initiative for psychologists is Cyber-Enabled Discovery and Innovation (CDI), which encourages research at all levels of analysis that takes full advantage of the opportunities made possible by advances in computation. Other competitions that may be of interest to psychologists include Cyberinfrastructure Training, Education, Advancement, and Mentoring for our 21st Century Workforce (CI-TEAM), Social-Computational Systems (SoCS), and Virtual Organizations as Sociotechnical Systems (VOSS).

APA: Do psychologists apply to such interdisciplinary initiatives? How successful are they?

Dr. Story: They do apply and they are just as successful as researchers in other fields. Interdisciplinary proposals can either be submitted to standing programs or be submitted in response to special solicitations, such as SEES and CDI.

The special solicitations often call for very large-scale projects involving scientists from multiple fields. Psychologists are often a great asset to interdisciplinary teams because of their unique skills in investigating and modeling behavior. But putting together teams, across departments and often across institutions, can be challenging. It’s especially important that psychologists are part of the team from the start and not just added as an afterthought.

For those proposals submitted to standing programs, interdisciplinary projects are often reviewed by more than one panel in order to ensure that all appropriate expertise is called upon.

APA: Are there any other funding opportunities that you would like to highlight?

Dr. Story: Yes, junior scientists should know about Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grants, which provide individuals with five years of support.

We also have Research at Undergraduate Institution (RUI) grants, to support opportunities for excellent science being conducted at those institutions.

There are RAPID grants as well, to support time-sensitive research that involves ephemeral data, such as studies of the consequences of the recent oil spill in the Gulf. The SBE Directorate recently released a notice inviting proposals related to the spill.

APA: Does BCS only fund research with humans, or does it also support research involving non-human animals?

Dr. Story: BCS does support research with non-human animals and we welcome proposals for such work.  The proposals that are competitive are those that have implications for understanding human psychological processes and behavior.  Animal research is supported in a variety of programs.  You can check the list of recently funded grants on the NSF website and talk with a program officer to determine the best program for a particular project.

Animal behavior research is also supported in NSF’s Biology Directorate.  That directorate focuses on animal behavior from an ecological and evolutionary perspective.

APA: What proportion of proposals is funded?

Dr. Story: Within BCS in recent years, we have generally funded about 15-20% of proposals. In 2009 we were able to fund about 30% because of the availability of ARRA [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] economic stimulus funds. As a response to that greater availability of funds, we’re seeing an increased number of submissions in 2010, even though ARRA funds have expired. So it’s not clear what our success rate will be this year.

Although the success rate for proposals may seem low, the success rate for scientists is higher. It usually takes two or three submissions before one receives an NSF grant, so persistence is important.

APA: It’s sometimes said that psychologists are harsher than scientists in other fields in reviewing proposals and, in particular, that they tend to focus too much on methodological details rather than the larger significance of a project. Do you see that? 

Dr. Story: I have not seen that. For interdisciplinary proposals, where we can directly compare the reviewing approaches of scientists from different fields, I typically see people supporting their science in a way that is thoughtful and justifiable. When you know a field well, you often will see things that other scientists might miss -- both positive and negative features of a project. I don’t think psychologists are harsher than other scientists.

On interdisciplinary panels, reviewers generally focus on whether there is a conceptual justification for the project: what will it add to our knowledge? will it make incremental progress (which can be valuable) or is it truly transformative? Of course reviewers pay attention to methodological details, but in important rather than petty ways.

APA: What’s the best way to get in touch with NSF about possible proposals? 

Dr. Story: You can start by checking the website and finding a program officer that handles the research that’s closest to your area. You can send that officer an email seeking to set up a phone call or email conversation. It’s a good idea to include a paragraph or so about your research ideas so that the officer will know something about what you want to propose. The officer can advise you whether the project is appropriate for NSF or another agency (such as NIH) and talk to you about the review process and may be able to give you some tips on how to present the work.

Sometimes a project does not fall into one program. That’s often because it’s interdisciplinary and the officer can then advise you on which programs would co-review the proposal. In other cases, a project may need to be reframed somewhat. For example, NSF does not have a communications research program, but many areas of communication research are appropriate for the social psychology program in BCS or for the Education Directorate.

Don’t be shy about contacting a program officer. Talking with researchers about new scientific ideas is one of the highlights of the job.

APA: Academic scientists can serve as program officers at NSF on a rotating basis. Can you tell us about that?

Dr. Story: About half the program officers at NSF are permanent.  The other half are rotators who come from academic institutions, spend two or three years at NSF, and then return to their institutions.  I think it’s a fabulous system.  The rotators bring new ideas and fresh perspectives to NSF and they return home with deep institutional knowledge of how science funding works.  The rotators also bring an appealing academic culture and feeling to NSF.   At the same time, the permanent officers maintain stability and continuity and develop a great deal of wisdom about managing science.  We aim to have two officers - one permanent and one rotator - for each program in our division.  It’s a great combination of background and skills.

I started out at NSF as a rotator. I strongly encourage scientists to consider applying for rotator positions in their areas when they become available. It’s an opportunity to get a broader view of your own science. It was eye-opening for me and fun -- you get to have a direct effect on young, early-career scientists and guide them through an often intimidating process. Part of the job of the program officer is to humanize the system and make it understandable to individual scientists. That can be really fulfilling.

One great thing about NSF is that it supports the scientific pursuits of all of its program officers, both permanent and rotating. Program officers can receive time off and some funding to engage in research (often through collaborations with others), to write, and to attend conferences.

APA: Thank you. Any final words?

Dr. Story: We at NSF are interested in a wide range of scientific ideas and approaches. We encourage you to contact program officers for advice and to submit proposals. We also encourage you to volunteer to serve as a reviewer. The world-class peer merit review system at NSF depends on scientists who are willing to share their time and expertise to help identify the strongest science. So we encourage you to get involved.

For more information, consult the NSF and BCS websites.