Why don’t more panels fund Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants?

What if you write a proposal and get told it does not fit in this panel or in any panel for your kind of proposal? Wouldn’t that be frustrating? It is true that just writing the proposal is a very useful thing to do, but you do it because you also want the funding. What to do?

Todd Oakley and his students have been facing this very situation recently. He wrote about it here. The basic problem is that only Behavioral Systems within the NSF program IOS funds Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants (DDIGs).  So any student doing something more physiological or neural would naturally want to emphasize the more behavioral side of the work so they can get funding. Then the overworked program officers have to make judgement calls. No doubt they will not always get them right. What is a good way out of this?

I suppose it hinges on what behavior is. This is difficult for this most integrative of all fields. I wrote a piece partly on this that will be coming out soon in Ethology. We could treat it like race and simply let the investigators self declare whether or not their reserch is behavior. We could make some narrow definition, but that would be hard to enforce. Truth be told, my own work is funded partly by Behavioral Systems. I work on a question very central to behavior, kin discrimination in cooperative contexts, but not in an animal.

It would be better if all of IOS set aside some funds for DDIGs. After all, they are a very cost effective use of NSF funds. All of DEB allows DDIGs, so the ecology/evolution side of things doesn’t run into these problems.

Why don’t the other programs in IOS fund DDIGs? Here I’m going to give you my perspective on DDIGs, so it may not be correct. I don’t have time right now to dig through the official history of these grants. It is my recollection that DDIGs came into being particularly for fields where graduate students did not do dissertations that were very closely allied with the research of their major professors. Because of this, they needed other funding. This held for me. None of my advisers worked on social animals, let alone wasps, though all worked on insects. They were generous with all kinds of support when they could be, but I funded much of the work myself. Good thing back then it could be cheap, since DDIGs did not exist, as far as I’m aware.

But part of the DDIG application requires differentiating one’s work from that of one’s adviser, so I don’t see why the other IOS programs couldn’t add in some funds for DDIG proposals.

I feel like our program officers are so diligent, I hesitate to second guess their particular decisions. If I were in their position, I might use as a deciding factor whether or not the main hypotheses were behavioral, or whether the response variables were behavioral actions or something else. Obviously, I wouldn’t worry about taxon. It is a shame in these days of amazing interdisciplinarity that we have to make these decisions. So lobby the other IOS programs to include DDIGs.

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
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2 Responses to Why don’t more panels fund Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants?

  1. µ says:

    I couldn’t agree more.

    DDIGs are probably the most cost-effective investment that NSF can make in science. Per $$, science is advanced more, and less funds are wasted, for the average DDIG award. These awards are to researchers who are at the peak of their creativity (and I write this as someone three decades past that peak of creativity; everything after that is simply working up ideas conceived first at around age 25).

    Of course, we all know of some students who received a DDIG award and then did not quite meet their stated research goals. But it seems I know of many more regular NSF awards that were awarded in a hype of panel exuberance, but then fell flat as reality checked in.

    So yes, let’s lobby NSF that other programs should also add DDIGs.

  2. Another advantage of DDIGs is it introduces students early to the funding environment. Make your research count. Reference appropriately. Have clear methods. Ask something new and important.

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