Sunday, January 29, 2012

Grantsmanship Musings

I am officially throwing in the towel... My submission of a proposal to the NSF within the Jan/Feb submission window will not happen.

My baby is miserable and will have to stay at home for a better part of the coming week. The other two kids are coughing a lot too, so I guess they have RSV as well. The nebulizer at our home has been on this weekend pretty much non-stop.

As a result of the work I missed last week and the impending missed work in the coming week, I don't think there is any chance in hell to wrap up that proposal on time considering its current state and the time I can realistically invest in it, even if I were to piss off every single person in SPO by ignoring all internal requirements and work till the very last minute until the agency submission deadline. So I am officially declaring that this proposal will not get written for this NSF submission window. There. I am admitting defeat.

I am able to do this because I received two co-PI grants late last year and just learned about a new PI grant that will be funded as of April. Therefore, everyone in the group is currently covered in the next 2-3 years (or graduating sooner than that), so missing one submission window is not the end of the world... If these grants hadn't panned out, the situation would not be rosy. I was in serious panic mode at the beginning of last year, but things are starting to look up.

One troubling fact that seems to have become more and more obvious (based on my experience on NSF panels and from my own funded and unfunded NSF proposals) is that funded proposals have a lot of preliminary data and are very detailed in terms of what gets to be done, why, and when. As in, you already had money from elsewhere for several years and did lots of work directly related to this grant, you already have many, many cool figures in the proposal that look like they could totally be published tomorrow, and the research plans are incredibly specific. It is so not  about having a nifty idea, having done some preliminary work, and asking for the money to make things happen. You essentially have to have predicted every tiny detail that could go wrong and address it, otherwise you will not get funded. This can really only be done if you are well  underway with the project, presumably with money received for a different project.
I find that the work getting funded is not transformative; rather, what gets funded are mature projects from established PI's, generally incremental contributions within their successful multidecade projects. I am not saying such projects should not be funded, but the NSF is all about "transformative" whereas the degree to which funded proposals are transformative, at least the ones I have been seeing recently, is actually fairly small.

There is a fine line between "too speculative = not enough preliminary data" and "every freakin' minuscule detail that will arise in the next 3 years needs to be foreshadowed and addressed in the proposal before it's fundable"; shouldn't we actually trust the PI that s/he will have the capacity to address certain challenges as they arise? That not every single detail can or even should be predicted? Anyway, my most recent funded grant is an NSF grant with a collaborator, so it's not me bitching about sour grapes. But I sure know that some of my more fun, exciting grants did not get funded because they lacked the nitty-gritty details of work that has essentially been completed... And I have seen way too many good grants, where the idea is exciting and plausible, get shot down because a mouthy panelist caught on to a tangential detail and sank a solid proposal because said detail  had not been addressed in sufficient detail. Perhaps I am still a romantic, but I do wish we'd fund exciting ideas with reasonable preliminary data, not work that has essentially been completed already...

As the PhD comic strip aptly captures:

Now, in my neck of the physical science woods, a single-PI NSF grant is essentially 1 student and a bit of summer money for 3 years ($80-100K/yr). Single-PI budgets from other agencies are not much different -- the DOE used to give about $150K/yr  but recently I hear recommendations to budget closer to $100K/yr. Many of the DOD agencies I am in contact with tell me to shoot for $100K/yr for new grants. All of these are typically 3-year grants. Basically, I need as many grants as I have peeps in the group, because a grant is generally not enough to cover more than 1 person even if I strip all salary support for myself (in which case I get in trouble because I supposedly show "no effort" on that grant). Clearly, that's a lot of grants one has to have at any given time for a sizable group and, consequently, a lot of grant writing that the PI needs to do as 3 years is really not a very long time...

So yeah... Hence all the guilt I am feeling for missing one proposal window, even though a full-fledged RSV attack on all of my offspring is a  really good excuse.

On the upside, my students are quite excited as I told them I was coming out of proposal writing lock-down and getting back to their many, many manuscripts that await resubmission. Maybe that's exactly what I need -- to treat myself to a month of uninterrupted manuscript editing (one of my favorite activities ever) as a prize for having received that latest grant. And I need to take my group out to lunch.


Anonymous said...

Great post, I enjoy reading your posts and your day to day struggle with life of an academic and mother. I can correlate with it well as I am going through similar struggle and trying to get that very first proposal funded.

GMP said...

Thanks, Anon! Good luck with securing funding, it sure is tough -- make sure you take advantage of all young investigator grant opportunities available in your field.

inBetween said...

I so do not envy your needed grant support. How do you find time to keep up with the literature, needless to say actually ever DO any rsearch?

And, I am so, so sorry to hear about the rsv infection. That totally sucks. I hope everyone is on the mend soon!