Eliminating grant deadlines is a feminist issue

“You’re such a productive academic mama! I didn’t do anything the first 4 months after my kid was born.”

Reading this recently in my inbox was unsettling. It was in reference to the fact that I was writing and replying to emails, with an infant at home.  What the sender didn’t, doesn’t, understand is that I don’t feel like I have much of a choice.  As an early career academic trying to figure out The Next Steps (AKA someone hire / fund me please!), there are a round of grant + fellowship deadlines this fall that won’t come up again for at least another year. And by then I won’t be eligible for at least one of them. In other words, external forces just don’t care what else I have going on. Their deadlines are not negotiable.

To some extent, I get it. I really do. I’ve ended up backing out of or turning down several things this fall that understandably are time-sensitive and involve large groups of other people- conferences, workshops. Deadlines and set time-frames help organize these groups and keep everyone on task. And these opportunities are important, but I just couldn’t make them work this fall.* One workshop required that I teach a module to peers on a pre-determined schedule, which I couldn’t commit to [with an infant nursing on demand who isn’t taking a bottle]. One conference was willing to let me present remotely/electronically, but said I had to commit to being available to answer questions live [again, I didn’t think that was a realistic option personally].

But I truly do not believe that this kind of inflexibility needs to be true for all academic opportunities. I feel especially strong about this when it comes to grant deadlines. 

There is already an ongoing movement to eliminate some grant deadlines in exchange for rolling deadlines. The latest NSF program to eliminate deadlines is in plant genomics, but NSF started their tinkering with this initiative years ago in the geosciences.

So far, NSF considers their elimination of grant deadlines wildly successful. Why? Because it greatly reduced the number of applications. Which makes funding rates look higher.  They’re chalking it up to reducing the number of mediocre or hastily created applications.  Others think it’s eliminating the procrastinators from the applicant pile. But, of course, there’s no way of knowing (yet?**) whether the quality of applications is better, or whether there are just fewer of them.

I agree with eliminating grant deadlines. But for a very different set of reasons.

Eliminating grant deadlines is a feminist issue. Why? Because when Life Happens, as it often does outside of work, women are left picking up the pieces. And this affects whether women can meet those deadlines – or at least whether they can meet those deadlines while maintaining their sleep and health.

Why do I think this? What do I mean by Life Happens? Kids get sick. Elders get sick. [Check out this entire page of stats on women and caregiving] Women are overwhelming taking care of the loved ones in their lives. Women are STILL doing more housework at home. Women are doing more service and admin work in the office. Women STILL get paid less, so they have fewer resources to outsource caregiving or food prep or take their of their physical and mental health.  Women are also more likely to be dealing with a mental illness, including depression, than men — so self-care and mental health-care are much needed.

Unfortunately, I don’t think grant deadlines necessarily keep women from applying to grants. [But don’t get even me started on how women are less likely to receive a major grant. Or that they are likely to get less funding than their male colleagues when they do get funding. Issues for another post.]  I think many a multi-tasking academic women perseveres and gets their grants in, while doing One Million Other Things, sacrificing all the way.  Even if they are sick. Even if their kids are sick. Even if they are taking on more tasks and roles in the academy than their male peers.

So with funding rates lower and lower, I don’t think NSF should be celebrating making a change that reduces applicants for their grants — especially without yet knowing who is being discouraged from applying with the change.  But I actually think that eliminating grant deadlines could actually help women be better represented in the grant pool – and hopefully give them the flexibility to develop stronger applications.

What do you think?

*doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be possible, depending on the person or the opportunity. Lots of folks take their infants to conferences or workshops. I took an infant to a conference once. But not this time.

** if we looked at the grant scores for pre- and post- deadline elimination, this could be possible. I’ll look forward to hearing whether program officers are going to do that and release the info publicly.


15 thoughts on “Eliminating grant deadlines is a feminist issue

  1. This is a very interesting comment, and I hope it opens a range of different aspects for discussion without any rancour. I agree it is mainly a feminist issue because of all the “still”s you have in your post, but Life also happens to men too, so if there is a benefit it will benefit all (as most inclusive strategies do – although aimed at improving things for one group, they end up being good for all).

    Personally, I hate deadlines and I hate working under extreme pressure … BUT… (capitals intended to make the letters very big)… a big “but” … in my long life, I have often achieved things just because there was a deadline, that I would not have achieved or finished otherwise. And I have seen the same thing happen in my family – none of whom seem quite so stressed by deadlines as I am. My conclusion is that I, personally, need some sort of deadline as an incentive to get Important Things Done – or maybe to prioritise my many activities to Get Something Finished.

    So I can understand why there are fewer applications with rolling deadlines. Some people just don’t get around to it. As you mentioned, it would be interesting to see why and what the overall results were regarding quality of applications.

    I think if there is any “answer”, it involves the definition of “rolling deadlines”. If this means one can apply at any time, then I think more people will procrastinate. However, if it involves having more than one date for applications throughout the year, then I think it would be an excellent thing to do (say, 3 or 4 deadlines during the year that were well advertised).

    The other thing that would be even better, would be flexibility to extend the deadline for, eg up t a month, on a one-on-one basis for “exceptional circumstances”. These could cover all the things mentioned in the post, plus all the things no-one ever thinks will happen to them (car accident, increase in workload during to illness of a colleague, one of the collaborators having issues …. anything reasonable).

    One suggestion to go into the mix of what I hope is a vigorous discussion.

    Then I hope someone listens to the arguments presented.


    • yes, I completely agree that ‘life happens’ to everyone – like your example of an accident (unforeseen by nature). which is why I’d argue that eliminating deadlines is good for everyone – and so am not just arguing to eliminate deadlines for women! 🙂 Personally, I’m wary of one-on-one exceptions because they are often unwritten / at the discretion of the grant officer. Being transparent seems like the best policy – as long as that transparency is a flexible policy that works for most if not all. Why not just, as you say, have a 1 month window that anyone can take advantage of? Rather than rely on the grant officer for an exception (especially because I’d be curious to know if it’s even possible to track those – do we know if women/men/etc ask for and/or get more extensions).

      • NSF invited my pre-proposal for a full submission three days before my baby was due. I negotiated a two-week extension with my program officer. I submitted it when my baby was about ten weeks old. It was not easy, but I did it.

  2. Oh, and p.s. I should have said this first – well done on achieving “stuff” when you have a young baby, and I hope you take time to enjoy your little one and watch him/her learn.

      • watching is how baby animals learn – and baby humans learn faster than anyone else at that age!!!! It fascinated me, how they were learning and it started me off on a teaching focus that I had never been interested in before.

  3. I agree with you that the idea of eliminating deadlines, or having multiple deadlines per year, would help buffer PI’s from “life,” women especially. I also agree that quantifying the impact of eliminating deadlines is important. The one complication to looking at grant scores pre- and post-deadline elimination is that unless the panelists are exactly the same, there’s no good way to decide if the changes you’re seeing are due to the elimination of the deadline, improvements to proposals on resubmission, or changes to the panel. Even if the panelists were to be exactly the same, though, scores still might change due to changes in the circumstances of the panelists.

    • great points. I still hope agencies consider those kind of metrics before declaring success, not just reducing the number of applicants!

    • One of the NSF programs I submit to did this and the program officer said there was a big improvement in proposals, because people weren’t cramming for a deadline anymore. It cut proposals by half, too. So it seems to be a win-win method.

      • do you think they’ll release data showing it improves proposal scores, not just reduces # of proposals? if this evidence exists, why not do it for all programs?

  4. One reason that rolling deadlines is better for everyone is that these once-per-year NSF deadlines are often all concentrated within a few months of each other, making the entire Fall semester, for example, a living hell. One could always say “well you should just get your proposal done sooner and manage your deadlines better” but to these people I say: TELL THAT TO MY CO-PIs! No matter how well I plan in advance, I am always at the mercy of my collaborators, and if those people operate on a deadline-driven basis then I won’t get their contribution to the proposal until 3 days before it’s due no matter how prepared I am ahead of time, no matter how much I beg and plead, and no matter how well I inform them of my family or health or other reasons for needing to not kill myself over a submission. Rolling deadlines (or 3-4 more solid deadlines per yr) provide impetus for an important cultural shift. A team of collaborators agrees on a timeline together, and if I don’t have my collaborators’ contributions within that timeframe, then I have the option to leave them out of the proposal (and, if I have a choice, don’t work with them again) OR to just postpone submission for a few weeks until they can get their act together. In practice, with a strict deadline, when my collaborators procrastinate it means that I have to clean up their mess at the last minute. Crazed, unfair burden on me, and a lower quality proposal that goes to similarly sleep-deprived reviewers and panelists.

    One note on rolling deadlines, though, is that for NSF programs that do claim to have rolling deadlines, in practice these are not rolling. What the website says (“proposals accepted any time”) and what the program actually does (has 2 panels per year, in July and December, for example) means that in practice there are some real but hidden deadlines in there. This can be very difficult for early-career researchers to decode. So above all else I ask for full transparency in deadlines, whatever those deadlines (or lack thereof) may be.

    • great points – rolling deadlines would still have periodic review, so agencies should just reveal when those are! (e.g. submit any time but grants reviewed quarterly)

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