Are you willing to pay for advice for your NSF pre-proposal?

I got an email just now from Dave Stephens that he has a book for sale on Amazon on how to write an NSF preproposal. If you are willing to shell out $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $16.16 for the paper version, you can have the book he created using Amazon publishing.

Since he was a program officer, I bet he has great advice. He also has a blog where you can get your questions answered and read a puff piece for the website. He doesn’t spill his secrets on the blog, though. Or you could read my blog entry on preproposals for free. It is the most popular thing I’ve written. But Dave no doubt goes into more detail.

It probably shouldn’t bother me, but it does bother me a bit that he has turned a government-paid public service job that gave him access into our innermost research secrets into a for-profit business. Why can’t he just put it out there for free in his blog, but have you pay for it if you want the convenience of a book? That is what Female Science Professor did here. Maybe I’m silly. After all, government work doesn’t pay much. He won’t be able to quit his day job as professor at Minnesota on the book profits.

It didn’t bother me when Mohamed Noor wrote a for-profit book on becoming a professor, either. I can’t even find it on his website, but it is here. Who knows, I might write a book someday! So why the uneasiness? What is the difference? Perhaps it is that Mohamed based his on his own experience and things he learned that are open source, not privileged access to our proposals and panel deliberations.

Obviously I know that is how our government works, that people in positions in it turn right around and become lobbyists or whatever, sometimes with a required absence. I’m also sure it was a lot of extra work to write the book, so why shouldn’t Dave get some reward for it?  I could probably talk myself into being really happy he bothered to do it, if that little nagging feeling would go away.

One of the things you may wonder about is what is the global point of all these efforts to help you to write a better pre-proposal? Am I helping just the people who read my blog? What if everyone read it? What then? After all, I can’t produce more money to fund all the wonderful proposals. I wonder what Dave thinks about this.

My answer is that I want to help everyone to think clearly, to plan carefully, and to do the best possible science, whether it is funded or not. This means putting in lots of time in reading and planning, not just in experiments. How many proposals fail for poor design, or for lack of reading the literature and finding big, new questions. This is hard work! The more everyone does it, the more we’ll find out about our amazing planet and the life on it.

Let’s not forget the broader impacts. Ultimately, the better we are at exciting people about science, the more they’ll vote for people interested in funding this wonderful activity that enriches our lives and those of others, human and beyond.

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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