Today was the second day of the AAAC meeting in DC; I participated remotely from NYC. The most interesting discussions of the day were around proposal pressure and causes for low proposal acceptance rates (around 15 percent for most proposal categories at NSF and NASA). The number of proposals to the agencies is rising while budgets are flat or worse (for individual-investigator grants at NSF they are declining because of increasing costs of facilities). The question is: What is leading to the increase in proposal submissions? It is substantial; something like a factor of three over the last 25 years. At the same time, the AAS membership has increased, but only by tens of percent.
With data in hand, we can rule out a few easy hypotheses: It is not people just sending in lots of bad proposals; proposals are still very good and now proposals rated Excellent and Very Good have less than 50-percent acceptance rates. It is not proposals by young people; the increase seems to be coming from senior people (people with tenure). It is not more proposals in any one year by the same PI; most PIs put in only one proposal to (say) the NSF AAG call in a year. What it might be is that people are not waiting three years between proposal submissions; I know I don't! 25 years ago, a successful research-active astronomer would put in one proposal every three years. Now I think most of us put in a proposal most years. That might account for it, but we don't yet know. It is not absolutely trivial to get the data.
In addition to getting data from the funding agencies, we also plan to do some kind of survey of the community. This will give less "hard" data, but will be able to give answers to questions that we can't ask of the data at the agencies, about things like motivation, perception, and reasoning among proposal PIs.