I have been searching for an answer, to no avail. I would like to apply for a grant for preconference funding. I know NSF has awarded such grants in the past, but I don't know if they will award a grant to a postdoc. My advisor would not be involved in this application, but other faculty at other institutions would be involved. So another option would be to write the grant myself and have someone who is faculty be the PI and I would be the co-I. But I want to know if that's necessary. Yet another option could be to have a faculty as the co-I and me as the PI, which may be more strategic than me doing it alone, but again, not sure if this is even possible.I have tried to reach out to the program officer but she has been unresponsive. I know they are busy but I wrote a very concise message with an informative subject line and she seemed to just assume I was looking for postdoc funding and sent a link for that. :(
I recommend that do some research on your own first, then contact the NSF program manager again. In particular:
Check the solicitation that you would be applying to. See what rules it has on eligibility. Usually the rules for eligibility will be stated. The solicitations are publicly available and listed on the NSF website.
Check the NSF policies to see what rules for eligibility they have. They might require PI status at your institution. These manuals are available on the NSF website and not hard to understand; see, for instance, the Grant Policy Manual.
Check your university's rules. Typically, submissions will need to go through and be approved by a sponsored projects office or the equivalent at your institution. See what rules they have. Do they require you to have PI status at the university? If so, what rules do they have for how to obtain PI status?
Talk to your grant administrator/coordinator at your department. Usually, the department will have someone who is responsible for that. Typically, they are responsible for knowing the rules and helping with grant submissions. They might not know; but they might just have helpful tips.
Do a little research on what prior awards have been given. All awards that NSF makes are public, and they have a publicly available search engine for searching through all past awards. You can see whether any awards have been given to postdocs in your field.
Then, armed with this information, contact the NSF program manager again. It's their job to answer questions. You can tell them, oh, sorry, I must not have explained myself very well, actually my question is such-and-such. Hopefully they will be able to give you some indication.
These are useful skills. Even if it turns out you can't apply, if you continue in academia, it will help you to know how the system works, so your time won't be wasted. Good luck with your grant application!
I work in theoretical mathematics. I have known several postdocs who have received individual NSF research grants. In fact, I am co-PI on a NSF Research Training Grant which has supported several postdocs, and we have required these postdocs to apply for individual grant support in every year of the job.
Having said that: all NSF grants are of course (i) a lot of work to apply for and (ii) quite competitive to receive, so before taking the time to apply for one I would want to get additional reassurance that not only is it legal for postdocs to apply for your particular kind of NSF grant (as it almost certainly is) but moreover that those who are reviewing the grants view it as reasonable that a postdoc might get such a grant, or -- better -- that some postdocs in your field have actually gotten such grants.
My advice for this is twofold:
Do some research on this yourself.
Who gets what NSF grant is public information. Whether the grantholder is a postdoc is something you will probably have to do further web research to find out, but it should be doable. Try it!
Ask followup questions to your program officer.
As you describe it, you sent one message to your program officer and got a response, but the response was based on a bit of misunderstanding of your situation. Okay, then try again. In your second (and third..., if necessary) try, you can ask additional questions based on what I wrote above: i.e., not just whether it's legal, but how does it work out in practice? By the way, it is (a big part of) the job of NSF program officers to answer such questions. As long as you are polite and respectful, you can ask her as many questions as you have...and I encourage you to do so.
To add to Pete’s excellent answer, you should also ask for help from your department - much more senior tenure track or tenured faculty often have just as much difficulty as you making sense of the many rules and regulations associated with grants. So talk to your department’s grants officer/coordinator and ask them to help you get the answers you need - that is precisely their job. You will also likely need their help in preparing the proposal if you decide to apply. Good luck!
The reason you can't find an answer is that this question doesn't have an answer. Remember, the NSF awards grants not to individuals (with a few exceptions), but to organizations (most often, universities). Outside of specific criteria listed in solicitations, you are eligible to apply to an NSF grant if and only if your university's office of sponsored program will submit a grant with you listed as PI. At some universities, postdocs can do this in their own right, at others they can't. Your program officer cannot answer this question (though, they might be able to give you good information about whether this is realistic; you can be technically eligible but not really qualified for the grant).
You have to talk to someone in your university's office of sponsored programs, or find a colleague who knows its policy.