NSF requests for "conflicts of interest" lists drive me batty and seem to penalize collaborative, interdisciplinary researchers

OK, time to bitch and moan a bit.

I am working on a few proposals to the National Science Foundation where NSF asks one to include “lists of institutions, project personnel, and collaborators with Conflicts of Interest”.

Seems simple I suppose.  But not when you get down to the details.  For example I found some guidance from the NSF about this where they ask one to list coauthors, collaborators, co-editors, students, advisors, advisees, friends, relatives, and many other affiliations.

To make a very long story short.  NSF wants you to make a list of anyone who possibly should not review your grant.  And if you are involved in many large collaborative projects or teach or train a lot of students.  Well, you are screwed.  For example, if they really want me to be thorough, I would probably have to list more than 500 people.  This would include a few hundred co-authors and hundreds of collaborators (e.g., on some projects I am working on with the Joint Genome Institute there are hundreds of people involved in some way).

Why does NSF ask for this?  Apparently, to help them select reviews for grant (I note, as far as I have seen, other granting agencies do not ask for this information).  If I were to do this as thoroughly as they ask, it would probably take me 2-3 full days of work – compiling the entire list of all who I collaborate with in some way on the many large projects on which I work.  I note – they don’t just ask for a list of names.  They ask for current organizational affiliations.  I published some papers four years ago with people who I have not met and have no frigging idea where they are now.  In some cases I might be able to figure this out with google but in others it might be impossible.  Even when easy it would take many minutes of searching per person to be sure.  So with some 500 people on my list (actually, probably more) it could take many many many hours just to figure out where people are now.

Anyone heavily involved in genome sequencing would probably have a massive list to go through.  Actually anyone involved in any large scale collaborative science project would have a pretty big list.  So, in a way, NSF is punishing people who do large scale projects like this by giving us extra work to do.  If you don’t collaborate with anyone or train anyone, well, you get a free pass and have no work to do here.

Do you get the feeling I am annoyed by this?  I used to compile a relatively full list.  But I have given up making it complete.  I now do my best to list major collaborators and coauthors but even that takes a long time.  And it all seems a bit inane.  Why can’t NSF just ask reviewers to declare their conflicts like other granting agencies?

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the fact that they ask for this as an Excel spreadsheet saved in csv format.

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

13 thoughts on “NSF requests for "conflicts of interest" lists drive me batty and seem to penalize collaborative, interdisciplinary researchers”

  1. I just had to do the same thing and after working on the modENCODE project and publishing papers with nearly 100 authors, I can feel your pain (and annoyance)! NIH doesn't do this and the review process doesn't seem to suffer as a result.


  2. I just found this post by googling “how do people generate conflict of interest list for nsf”. I tear my hair out every time. I figure someone must have made a tool to make it easy. And it changes every year (you have to sunset people after 48 months). Some *but not all* programs now have started to get wise and require you only to list SENIOR authors on papers with more than five authors. So I can't just use the one I generated last time.


  3. DEB just realized that collaborative people were losing a big chunk of their biosketch to this list when they also were going to ask for it in the spreadsheet anyway. So they let you leave it off the Biosketch. But GoLife wants it.

    Google Scholar should just let you filter their automatically generated co-author list to those more recent than year X. Or better yet, NSF should just have a tool for its program officers that automatically grabs that data for grant PIs. What does NIH do?


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