Understanding the Rules of Life: Emergent Networks (URoL:EN) Predicting Transformation of Living Systems in Evolving Environments

Funding Agency:
National Science Foundation

In 2016, the National Science Foundation (NSF) unveiled a set of "Big Ideas," 10 bold, long-term research and process ideas that identify areas for future investment at the frontiers of science and engineering (see https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/big_ideas/index.jsp). The Big Ideas represent unique opportunities to position our Nation at the cutting edge of global science and engineering by bringing together diverse disciplinary perspectives to support convergence research. As such, when responding to this solicitation, even though proposals must be submitted to the Division of Emerging Frontiers in the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO/EF), once received, the proposals will be managed by a cross-disciplinary team of NSF Program Directors.

The Understanding the Rules of Life: Predicting Phenotype "Big Idea" is based on developing a predictive understanding of how key properties of living systems emerge from interactions of factors such as genomes, phenotypes, and evolving environments. Ideally, the predictive capability of the Rules of Life explored by projects supported by the program will enable us to address some of the greatest challenges we currently face in understanding the living world.  This Understanding the Rules of Life: Emergent Networks (URoL:EN) solicitation is a cross-directorate program of NSF that aims to develop a predictive understanding of how key properties of living systems emerge from interactions of factors such as genomes, phenotypes, and environments and how emerging networks of organismal, natural, social, and/or  human-engineered systems respond to or influence evolving environments.  Successful projects of the URoL:EN program are expected to use convergent approaches that explore emergent network properties of living systems across various levels of organizational scale and, ultimately, to contribute to understanding the rules of life through new theories and reliable predictions about the impact of specific environmental changes on behaviors of complex living systems, or engineerable interventions and technologies based on a rule of life to address associated outcomes for societal benefit. Projects that advance all of the different fields of science represented in the project and that represent different NSF Directorates are strongly encouraged. 

Using such convergent approaches, proposals must:  

  1. Identify a rule(s) of life around which the proposed research is oriented or to which the research is applied. 
  2. Include a compelling convergent research plan with deep integration across disciplines. 
  3. Involve a basic, or fundamental, research approach to investigate a new understanding of emergent networks of interactions between organisms and Earth, human, natural, and/or human-engineered systems in evolving environments.

The convergent scope of URoL:EN projects also provides unique STEM education and outreach possibilities to train the next generation of scientists in a diversity of approaches and to engage society more generally. Hence, the URoL:EN program encourages research projects that integrate training and outreach activities in their research plan, provide convergent training opportunities for researchers and students, develop novel teaching modules, and broaden participation of under-represented groups in science.

The URoL:EN Program will support projects with a total budget of up to $3,000,000 and an award duration of up to 5 years.


Full Proposal Deadline Date: March 1, 2022

Agency Website

Eligibility Requirements

Proposals may only be submitted by the following:

  • Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) - Two- and four-year IHEs (including community colleges) accredited in, and having a campus located in the US, acting on behalf of their faculty members. Special Instructions for International Branch Campuses of US IHEs: If the proposal includes funding to be provided to an international branch campus of a US institution of higher education (including through use of subawards and consultant arrangements), the proposer must explain the benefit(s) to the project of performance at the international branch campus, and justify why the project activities cannot be performed at the US campus.
  • Non-profit, non-academic organizations: Independent museums, observatories, research labs, professional societies and similar organizations in the U.S. associated with educational or research activities.

A minimum of one PI and one co-PI must be named on a proposal, representing expertise in different disciplines pertinent to at least two of the following directorates: Biological Sciences (BIO), Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE), Education and Human Resources (EHR), Engineering (ENG), Geosciences (GEO), Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS), and Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE), at the National Science Foundation. Expertise may be demonstrated by earned degrees from disciplines, current departmental and center affiliations, or experience, such as papers published in that disciplinary field or research supported by a relevant NSF Directorate(s). Proposals should explicitly state a minimum of two NSF directorates that map to their proposal in the "Convergent Research Plan" section of the Project Description.

An individual may appear as Principal Investigator (PI) or co-PI on only one proposal per annual cycle submitted in response this solicitation. If an individual is listed as PI or co-PI on more than one proposal to this solicitation, all proposals in excess of the limit for any person will be returned without review in the reverse order received.

Proposals submitted in response to this solicitation cannot be duplicates of proposals to any other Federal agency for simultaneous consideration.

If a proposal involves multiple organizations, it must be submitted as a single proposal with subawards; separately submitted collaborative proposals are not permitted and will be returned without review.



Funding Type





Engineering and Physical Sciences
Environmental & Life Sciences
Social Sciences

External Deadline

March 1, 2022