Tuesday, April 12, 2011

No Funding Stone Unturned

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.


Anonymous said...

Wow this is so interesting. I relate to it and I want to bring up the emotional aspect. Do you have any tips for those of us who have some kind of self destructive, rebellious streak and instead of plowing through the white paper, keep delaying it? While I do meet deadlines most of the time and I am applying, it's a thoroughly painful process for me. I know you don't mean it lightly when you say "give birth" because the writing of such things is more than just work. There is an emotional resistance (at least with me) about conforming myself to the system. This is hard for me. But I have to do it. I am not going to change the game by just being rebellious in the sidelines, am I?

I am trying to go for NIH funding and all I learned so far is how to make my research really incremental and boring, at which point I lose interest and the writing becomes a chore. On the other hand I'd be stupid to not go for NIH funding in my field. I hate the norms I am supposed to fit into. I want to work on my big ideas, try out stuff and see if it works (instead of pour myself neatly into molds of specific aims and hypotheses). I've decided to swallow my silly teenage-like rebellious feelings and sit down and plow through. But every grant I write feels like labor pains! Is there a way to make it more enjoyable or faster? Or will my motivation increase "naturally" as my startup funds dry up?

EliRabett said...

aka a red herring

Yael said...

Question: does the DOD have a database for awarded grants akin to NSF Fastlane? Where can I find it? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I hear you. I moved from a theory/big questions lab for my Ph.D. to a much more applied environment for my post doc. There are some theory people here, but they do applied stuff on the side. And I am finding a lot of the applied stuff boring, and I feel guilty about it. I wrote a proposal tailored to my current environment, and it got funded, and now all I'm thinking about is how many of the projects I actually "have" to do and when I can work on the more exciting questions.

Dr. Sneetch said...

Fundable grant work is not necessary interesting. Its great when an idea is fundable and interesting, but I've found the hard way that's not always the case. In star education, only the priveleged handful get the grants that give them complete freedom. The rest of us got to do the grunt work funding agencies think is a good thing.

Hope you have a wonderful weekend.

GMP said...

Yael, regarding DoD I think you have to go to the pages of individual agencies and poke around. Also, contact program officers first before anything else, to see what they want to fund. In DoD, it's really about what they want in their portfolio.

Thanks everyone for the comments. Dr Sneetch has pretty much said it: only the priveleged handful get the grants that give them complete freedom. The rest of us got to do the grunt work funding agencies think is a good thing.

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