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Physical Sciences

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Over the last decade proposal success rates in the fundamental sciences have dropped significantly. Astronomy and related fields funded by NASA and NSF are no exception. Data across agencies show that this is not principally the result of a decline in proposal merit (the proportion of proposals receiving high rankings is largely unchanged), nor of a shift in proposer demographics (seniority, gender, and institutional affiliation have all remained unchanged), nor of an increase (beyond inflation) in the average requested funding per proposal, nor of an increase in the number of proposals per investigator in any one year. Rather, the statistics are consistent with a scenario in which agency budgets for competed research are flat or decreasing in inflation-adjusted dollars, the overall population of investigators has grown, and a larger proportion of these investigators are resubmitting meritorious but unfunded proposals, likely in response to the decreased success rates. Recent research on the time cost of proposal writing versus that of producing publishable results show that a funding rate of ~6% represents the tipping point below which proposal writing prevents more papers than grants produce. This is close to the success rate experienced by new investigators against an overall average funding rate of 20%, due to rating bias against PIs without recent funding. At this 20% average selection threshold, the opportunity cost is still significant (2-3 papers per successful proposal) even for established researchers. Unfortunately, even an investigator submitting a proposal rated “very good” can expect, with three attempts, only a ~58% chance of funding. A 20% overall funding rate is thus unhealthy for the field, since it precludes stable, long-term support for students, postdocs, or researchers on soft money, and it preferentially discourages young researchers from remaining in the field. Yet, as demonstrated below, we are currently in exactly this situation. We conclude that an aspirational proposal success rate of 30- 35% would still provide a healthily competitive environment for researchers, would more fully utilize the scientific capacity of the community's facilities and missions, and provide relief to the funding agencies who face the logistics of alarming volumes of proposals.

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