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Twelve Tips for Department Heads from an NSF Perspective

Carnegie Mellon Professor Jeannette Wing

I was recently asked by the organizers of next summer's CRA Snowbird Workshop for New Department Heads for advice I would give from the NSF perspective. I thought I would share my suggestions with everyone since all academic and industry researchers and practitioners, not just new (and old) department heads, may find them useful. These tips are targeted primarily for academic researchers since they are who NSF primarily funds. In fact, 84 percent of all federally-funded fundamental research in computer science comes from the NSF Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) Directorate. Scary number!

Here's what a department head should advise his or her faculty and what all faculty should do for themselves:

  1. Talk to NSF Program Directors. The PDs are the most knowledgeable about not just the programs they oversee but also other programs throughout CISE and NSF and NSF policies and processes. If you have a good idea for a proposal and it’s not clear which program is most appropriate for your idea, the PDs can help steer you in the right direction. They can help you navigate through our many rules and procedures.
         a. Corollary #1: You may be familiar with one or two "core" programs but as your research changes, you may not realize that there are other ongoing "core" or new programs suitable for your new research ideas. Don't think that you need to stick to your current PD or current program for funding.
         b.  Corollary #2: Get to know your Program Director(s). Don't be shy to visit NSF and stop by to meet the PD who is funding you. It’s also a good opportunity to meet other PDs not just in CISE but in other directorates and offices related to your interests.
  2. Take reporting requirements seriously.
         a. Learn to write a good "highlight." It is important for the computing community to be able to explain the nature of our research to the general public, to the Administration, and to Congress. Writing a highlight is a good opportunity to practice this form of communication. Also, it is a real honor if a PI's highlight is featured in the President’s Budget Request since all highlights submitted to NSF go through many stages of filtering. If your highlight is chosen, add it to your cv.
         b. Submit your annual and final reports on time. The funding of a new award will be held up because of missing overdue reports. Alert: Some time next year, you will be asked to identify a section of your final report that will be published on so that the public can get a better understanding of research and education supported with taxpayer funds.
  3. Learn the basics of the NSF organization. Ditto for other funding agencies. Under the Director of NSF are the Assistant Directors (e.g., one for CISE), then the Division Directors (e.g., three in CISE), and then the Program Directors.

Here's what a department head should make sure to do:

  1.  Sign up for the NSF and CISE mailing lists. You can do this via the NSF and CISE Web sites. NSF sends out frequent announcements about funding opportunities and changes to policies and processes. CISE sends out infrequent informal "Dear Colleague Letters" alerting the community to important events and funding opportunities. As a department head, make sure to forward these mailings to your faculty.
  2. Mentor junior faculty in writing CAREER and regular NSF proposals. Give feedback on their research ideas and the ways in which they present them in their proposals. Encourage them to attend the CRA Career Mentoring Workshop run for senior graduate students, post-docs, and assistant professors for advice on writing proposals and other professional development activities.
  3. Learn the basics of the federal budget process. Please see my first CACM blog entry on this topic. Make sure to attend any CRA Snowbird session on government affairs. You should learn the vocabulary and what steps happen when.
  4. Lead your faculty in building collaborations. Connect your faculty within your department, to other departments on campus, to other universities, to industry, to private foundations, and to your local and regional school districts. Computing is transforming every aspect of our lives so leverage the strengths of your faculty and your institution to build new interdisciplinary partnerships and new research and education collaborations. As department head, you can spearhead a new large-scale research and/or education effort for your campus, e.g., on the scale of a CISE Expedition, an Engineering Research Center or an NSF Science and Technology Center.
  5. Encourage undergraduates to do research in computing. Make sure your faculty always request supplements to support undergraduate researchers and/or consider submitting proposals to host Research Experiences for Undergraduates Sites.
  6. Encourage seniors and first-year graduate students to apply for an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Students indicating their intent to pursue graduate studies in computing are underrepresented in this program.
  7. Encourage faculty to serve as reviewers for NSF. Serving on a panel can especially be an eye-opening learning experience for junior faculty. Remind your faculty that the PI community and peer review community are one and the same. Service matters.
  8. Encourage mid-career and senior faculty to serve as "rotators" to NSF. CISE is always looking for good Program Directors and Division Directors. The quality of Program Directors shapes the frontiers of our field. Here is the logic: The PD chooses the reviewers and the PD makes the funding recommendations. Clearly good judgment is required for both. In the end what is funded and what is not partly determine where our field moves and what our field looks like.
  9. Encourage bold, creative, visionary thinking. NSF first and foremost looks to fund good people and good ideas.
         a. NSF is all about fundamental, long-term research. It is all about high-quality research identified through the merit-review process. Regardless of your perception of NSF, we welcome groundbreaking, high-risk high-return potentially transformative ideas.
         b. NSF supports not just curiosity-driven, but use-inspired research ("Pasteur's Quadrant"). Computing research is naturally use-inspired. In tackling societal grand challenges, e.g., energy, environment, healthcare, and security, we will need both fundamental advances in computing and working with others in other disciplines. Opportunities abound!


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