Just when you should be relaxed and gradually easing back into work from the winter break, NSF preproposals are fast coming due. It is hard to work on them and yet exhilarating to get your ideas down and your best plans for testing them. So how about a little NSF humor?
It was 1989. We had been hard at work processing proposals on the 12-14 April panel. It was a different time, 25 years ago. We had a couple of computers in the corner and otherwise sat around a table with stacks of paper proposals. Some things were the same as today. Three people were in charge of each proposal. There was a leader who wrote the panel summary which the whole panel approved. Our NSF leaders were Mark Courtney and Steve Threlkeld. They would receive our summaries and read them out for approval when four or five had accumulated. Then we would all stop for a bit and listen and comment on the summaries.
Could we get Mark or Steve to read a fake panel summary? We imagined we could. I had three partners in crime, but I don’t quite dare name them, for two of their signatures are not legible, and memory might not serve. You see we were annoyed because we had just had one of those interruptions when the upper echelons of NSF come in the room and pretend to want to hear from us, but really just want to tell us how it is. I remember this person too, but will not name her. What she wanted us to know was that this was the time for big science. The kind of single investigator curiosity driven work we were evaluating was over. We needed big questions that required big teams. So all these great proposals we were attending to that sunny day in April were pointless? What? Well, it wasn’t that strong, of course, but we felt aggrieved.
Of course this was not the fault of Mark or Steve, but they were the ones we could reach. Besides, it had been a long day and we needed some fun. by the computers we colluded on a fictitious summary and I typed it up. We put the fake panel summary in the pile with the real ones and waited.
Mark was reading. He read through a couple of summaries and put the proposals at the suggested place on the board. Then he got to ours. We were dispersed in the room, at our places, no longer huddled over the computer in the back. Mark read. I suppose a PI named Standing is possible. The university was I O University. The division then was BSR and the panel, population biology and physiological ecology, I think because they were avoiding coming right out and saying evolution.
Mark Courtney I remember as tall and blond. He was laconic and very fair. He had a way of delivering the worst news in a manner that somehow made it seem right and inevitable. I don’t know if he handled the first proposal I got funded, but he did handle one later that did not get funded right when I needed one to get funded for tenure. I was devastated. He was comfortable with silence on the phone. I had better fortune later, of course, and really grew to like Mark. I respected his judgement even when it went against me. Steve, by the way, was a rotator, so I knew him less well, but liked him also.
Mark began to read, “I. P. Standing and his group propose to study the sociobiology of egg-carrying behavior within assemblages of pinnipeds. The research involves very high-tech molecular probes, RFLPs, Southern and Northern blots, not to mention Eastern and Western blots. This panel is the appropriate body to review this proposal in view of its expertise in egg-related activities and of its stated mission…”
At this point Mark paused. He looked around. He looked right at me. I have no idea why. Then he read another sentence: “…towit “I am the egg-man, you are the egg-man, I am the walrus, koo-koo, ka choo.” He stopped and asked who wrote this. But by then everyone wanted to hear the rest, so if memory serves, Mark read it. I hope you can read it too in the photo attached. It broke up the work and we went back to reading reviews and writing summaries.
This is a story that anyone who knows me is likely to have heard. But I did not lay eyes on the original document until I gave a talk a year or so ago at Ole Miss, academic home of Steve Threlkeld. There on his wall was a framed copy of our famous summary, signed by all. We had a good laugh. Today of course we would have emailed it around, put it on Facebook, or a least snapped a photo with our phones. Back then, one person got it and it had a chance to hide.
If you see a name on there we did not identify, let me know.
So, where has science gone since then? Have the single investigators gone the way of the walrus? I hope not, for studies of creativity still indicate the power of the single human brain.