NSF let us know we’re part of the 99%

What do you do when you find out NSF did not fund your brilliant proposal? The one that you worked on night and day while sleeping on the floor instead of unpacking? The one that you spent months thinking about, carefully planning, gathering all kinds of preliminary data for? Yes that one. The one that has reviews that would make your mother proud, they seem so positive?

I suppose it is good in a way that in the electronic age we found out at 9pm yesterday, Friday. Today, Saturday, the sky is still blue, the undergrads we brought out to Tyson for field work were still enthusiastic. It still took only 25 minutes to get to this forest wonderland. Furthermore, this lack of funding did not change the probability that there will be Dictyostelium discoideum in the soil and deer poop samples, though it may ultimately change our ability to analyze them.

I suppose it is also good that we already had our lab retreat yesterday, again out at Tyson, in the carbon neutral building with composting toilets. We discussed lots of exciting research possibilities, teaming up to move forward. But enough of what is good. There is a lot more that is not so good.

According to the letter that came with our rejection, that program received 285 proposals. I wonder how many of those would have resulted in great research and yet were not funded. I wonder even more how many excellent investigators will have their careers cut short because they did not get funding this time. They may do great work, but struggle to describe it in advance. They may be young, not yet grown into the stage when they will do excellent work. Or they may need the prod of rejection to discover the bigger questions they really should be asking, or the techniques that will bring their work to the next level. It is even true that some proposals are probably not a good way to spend out nation’s ever stingier tax dollars that go so overwhelmingly to the military. (I don’t call it defense because it simply isn’t.)

It sure isn’t easy to look at the big picture right now, but let’s try. NSF didn’t always exist. It began in 1950, according to Wikipedia. The NSF site itself apparently has a history section, but it is down right now. The famous Russian launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 spurred the US into funding more research, and a lot of those funds were given out by NSF. It is quite simply what funds curiosity-driven research that is not particularly agricultural or medical, though much of it is practical, funded through the engineering directorates. Universities existed before NSF funding, though they have since come to depend on the funding.

The thing is, we actually figure out things that turn out to be really useful and important. Sometimes we can identify those things in advance, but surprises are common. It is a truism that research designed to answer some questions also answers others. Those non-target questions can end up being much more important than the first set. The country actually benefits from excellent research. It isn’t just an amusement. So why is it so poorly funded, around 8% fund rate at the panel we were just spurned by? I suppose the answer is complicated and has to do with how expensive research is, how many people want to engage in it, and how stingy the rich of America have become.

This is a shame, a shame that impacts me and my group very directly. But there is another even bigger shame out there. I would hate to think that our entire knowledge acquisition system could be threatened by the consequences of these low fund rates. If tenure is denied to excellent people just because they cannot succeed in the few rounds available to them, that would be a shame.They suffer, their students suffer, their universities and colleges suffer. Maybe even the whole system of tying the people doing great, original research to the young students just beginning university is under jeopardy. I certainly think that our system of funding research in universities, letting it be largely self-organized is a great one. We don’t pour our research dollars as much into think tanks and government-run institutes like CNRS in France, or Max Planck in Germany. I think the research-teaching tie is a wonderful one, but a lack of funding could poison the contract, both because of diminished research and because of short-sighted university responses to funding struggles.

Just funding people up for tenure doesn’t really solve the problem either, for innovation and brilliant science happens later too. I know some really innovative researchers moving into administration, early retirement, or fleeing to other countries. Is that good? Again, I return to the point that we love to do research, but that is not why the nation funds it. We figure stuff out that helps us coexist and survive on this glorious planet.

If there isn’t much money, and we can’t do much about it, what money there is should be doled out in fair and transparent ways. If someone has no chance of getting funded, that should be clear up front. If is is now a requirement that everyone must have a gap in funding before they can get funded again, say so. Don’t just spring it on us, or apply it erratically. Of course, this rule is not true all across NSF. Some programs are more willing to fund people with funding that hasn’t yet expired than others. I suppose the lesson is to call your program officer and discuss it with her. The true answer is probably complicated, and varies widely across NSF.

But do I think NSF is fair and transparent? Hard as it is to say at this point, I’d have to say, yes, generally. You can look at who got funding and how much when their internet hasn’t crashed the way it has now. The abstracts of the proposals are right there for all to see. Is it fair? NSF has review boards that look at that. You can talk to your program officer. Do it. It is inevitably not entirely fair because it is a human enterprise, but it seems to be concerned with fairness. Was it fair not to fund us with this proposal and those reviews? Well, you’ll just have to guess what I think about that.

What do you do on the day after you didn’t get funding? Take the dog for a walk. Go for a run. Have breakfast at that great crepe place. Then read the reviews. Read the proposal. What can you improve? What can you do without more funding? Make your responses constructive. Your whole lab group is watching. Teach them how to move forward, even in hard times. You will resubmit the proposal, but the resubmission may also be denied. What are our universities going to do? What will US science and the US academy look like in 5 years? In 20 years?

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A beautiful Saturday at Tyson.

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Amanda, Eamon, Boahemaa, and Lucy organize their field samples for further study.

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Dictyostelium discoideum, our glorious study organism.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Grant proposals, Managing an academic career. Bookmark the permalink.

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