For several weeks now, I have been trying to give birth to a white paper.* I do not use the term "giving birth" lightly -- cobbling up this puny three-pager has been a surprisingly painful process. This is from someone who (a) had children, and (b) really enjoys writing.
It's one of those things that we, the fishnet-stocking-wearing scientists (as my dear PhD advisor used to say) have to do: we apply for funding to do certain projects because someone else is interested in them, that someone potentially has the money to fund the work, and we happen to be able to do it. It sounds like a match made in heaven, if it weren't for the fact that the party proposing the work (that would be mois) is really not all that enthusiastic about doing it.
It's work in a field that I occasionally dabble in (I have some on-again, off-again experimental collaborators in the field), and it's never really struck my fancy... I don't know why, I guess it's a bit too applied for my taste. The field has a tremendous technological potential and there are some important open issues that I am perfectly capable of addressing theoretically; there is actually a veritable shortage of people with my background attacking problems in this field, and some of the techniques I have developed for a different class of problems in a different field would translate well here. My previous dabblings into the same field resulted in some well-cited papers, precisely because I brought something new and addressed a few outstanding problems that were there, untouched but ripe for the pickings. This sounds like a potential for a breakthrough, right?
The issue is that I cannot get excited about these problems. It's not that they are simple or unimportant; it's that the level at which I am interested in these problems (more basic, general outlook) is not the level that interests most people or funding bodies (very applied, milestone-oriented, structure-specific outlook).
So I have been gnawing at this little white paper, trying to present what I would like to do (address a large class of problems via kick-ass advances in theory/simulation) within the context that would not put a more application-oriented reader (e.g. the program manager or my experimental collaborator) to sleep or in a state of shock. I have been reading a lot (A LOT) of papers to be able to present that I am really abreast of the latest application developments, and I am pulling my hair at how bored I am while reading. So yes, the three-page white paper has been sucking the life out of me.
Why do I do it, you ask? I am trying to tap the funding potential of an agency I haven't dealt with before. First, I sent emails to all program managers in my general area, and I suggested 5-6 topics that I could potentially work on, with a paragraph-long writeup for each. One manager invited a white paper on one of the proposed topics, and the rest is history. It's inevitable: in order to keep going, you have to mold yourself to how the funding winds blow. I suppose the key to keeping sanity is having at least one project of passion to balance out those that don't make the heart flutter. I am hoping that the funding decisions on my pending proposals enable me to maintain my passion projects. But, they may or may not. In the meantime, here I am, making sure I leave no funding stone unturned.
* A white paper is a 2-3 page document in which you pitch your proposal idea to a program manager at a funding agency. Based on the white paper, the program manager will encourage or discourage submission of a full proposal, or may suggest sending it to another person at the same agency. In my physical sciences field, white papers are a standard informal prelude to full proposals in all DoD agencies and DOE. They are also a good idea with the NSF if you are not familiar with the program director or are unsure which program to send to.