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Kill the deadline

“I love deadlines.  I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Douglas Adams

TedPhoneBoxResized.bmp‘Deadline’, meaning a line that neither moves nor strays (OED) went dark in 1886, when it came to signify the line around a military prison beyond which prisoners could expect to be shot.  It retains much the same grim finality for journalists, for whom the only excuse for missing one is being dead.  It is no boast to say I have never missed a deadline.  It is the way of one’s people.

Other folks for whom, unlike Douglas Adams (see quote above) deadlines are more than mere aspirational targets – other people who really mean it - are administrators of scientific funding programs.  No appeals.  Lines must be drawn.  “If we were to make an exception for you…” they say - hinting that life would become simply unliveable.

However, evidence reported in Science1 has suggested that deadlines themselves, in the research-funding context, may in fact be more problem than solution.  They create lumpy workflows, for one thing.  In an already strained review system, having to make all the effort in two annual binges can’t be good.  And it may go further.  Deadlines may actually generate more, and poorer, proposals.

Last year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, heard from Geosciences Assistant Director Roger Wakimoto that removing deadlines and replacing them with an ‘anytime’ submission system caused the number of proposals received to drop by 59% - even more than the 50% drop experienced when a similar ‘anytime’ scheme was piloted in 2011 (in a small grant program for instruments and facilities).

Alex Isern, head of NSF’s Surface Earth Processes section, eliminated the standard time-honoured bi-annual deadlines in four of her grant programs.  She saw applications fall from 804 (in 2014) to 327 (April-March 2015).  Moreover, the ‘lost’ proposals appeared to constitute ‘the bottom 50%’ – the long tail of half-baked proposals done in a rush at the last minute. 

The new system meant that scientists (especially those in sciences like geology where deadlines can fall awkwardly with the field season) could bide their time, schedule the writing to suit their own timetables, and take greater pains.  Success rates were expected to rise sharply as a result.

Are there drawbacks?  Some scientists complained that deadlines ‘motivated’ them – to which Isern responded laconically that they now had ‘365 deadlines a year’.  As for NSF, – its program managers may fear achieving higher success rates than their colleagues, because one criterion used historically to argue for higher budgets has been ... pressure of applications.  But clearly, if proposal pressure can be so easily manipulated, said Carol Frost, Head of Earth Sciences Division, “it is not a good metric”.


  1. No pressure: NSF test finds eliminating deadlines halves number of grant proposals by Eric Hand.  Science 15 April 2016, Doi: 10.1126/science.aaf9925
  • Editor’s note:  We’re not exactly the NSF, but the deadline for submitting proposals to the Society’s Research Grants scheme is 1 February 2018 (see here, and also here).