I am bracing for a summer of proposal writing, paper writing, and conference travel. Proposals that are going out in the fall are important, as are the papers that will enable me to write a competitive renewal for another agency about a year from now. I am very excited, but also twice as anxious.
I spent an extraordinary amount of time in the past few months either on panels or reviewing proposals. I think I might have OD-ed on critiquing other people’s would-be projects, because I am facing feelings of overwhelming dread and despair at the thought of all the effort I am going to put in and out of which very little, if anything, will likely come. There, I am saying it: I am not a very confident proposal writer, which is a bad thing to be when the ability to write strong, persuasive proposals makes or breaks your career. This is where suffering from Dunning-Kruger instead of the impostor syndrome would come in handy.
During my panel excursions, I came across several people who are very well funded. Most of them turn out (unsurprisingly) to be very good and persuasive proposal writers. Even when they don’t get funded, when their ideas are only halfway formed, they still write compellingly and are generally ranked near the top if not at the tippity-top of any proposal roster. I really don’t think I am that persuasive, at least not routinely.
Most proposals I have reviewed are incremental. People are doing their thing and want to continue doing their thing; who can blame them? There were a few PIs who wanted to do something out of the norm, but they were usually slammed as “too speculative” and “not enough preliminary data.” On the other end are the proposals that have so much preliminary data that “they have already done the work” or “it is not clear where the novelty lies.” I am becoming convinced that it is, in fact, fundamentally impossible to have the right amount of preliminary data.
All this bullshit has to do with ridiculously low paylines. On the last panel I attended the funding rate was about 10%. We reviewed about 30 proposals and will fund 3. A vast majority of proposals are by serious people who do good work and who wrote good proposals that, if funded, would result in good and important science. And a vast majority of them won’t get funded and will have to wait another year before they are allowed to try again.
So what are the criteria that do get you funded by NSF panels? Honestly, it is largely a crapshoot and that’s what’s so demoralizing. You need to put forth a really strong proposal, but everyone else does it, too. Then you have to be lucky and well placed on a panel. If you are reviewed by a panel where people are not experts in your field, sure, they can gloss over some technical minutiae where the experts would kill your ideas, but you still won’t get funded because no one will champion you. The fate of your proposal is decided in the first 15-20 min of panel review, when the manager goes around the room and asks each panelist which proposal they consider to be the strongest and most worthy of funding. Basically, everyone gets to suggest their favorite and the funded ones are nearly always from among that list. If you are no one’s favorite, you are pretty much toast, most of the time. The only scenario in which you might rise to the top is if people tear down each other’s favorites to shreds, and then you come out as the underdog against whom nobody has anything really damning (this happens relatively rarely, in my experience).
I am anxious just thinking about the upcoming proposal writing. I have 2-3 topics on which I want to write. Are they earth-shattering? Probably not, but then again, nothing is. Are they non-incremental enough and science-boner-inducing enough to get funded? Perhaps; it depends on the panel and how good of a job I end up doing with the writing. I have been mulling over the ideas in the back of my mind for months, now is the time to start writing what NIH folks would call “specific aims” and NSF folks (at least on my side of the NSF pond) call themes or topics or thrusts (more of a DoD lingo) or (rarely) aims; sometimes people call them tasks or goals or objectives. (We can argue whether all these terms are synonymous with one another, but we won’t.) Bottom line is — if you can articulate 3-5 main lines of study, each worth 2-3 papers, those are your proposal information quanta. Partition your narrative any finer, and you risk being told that you are presenting “a laundry list of topics” or that you are “going on a fishing expedition” or that “the proposal lacks focus” (all panel favorites).
You may have noticed that at no point do I say what I actually really want to do. I don’t say these are the topics I am burning with desire to explore. There are things I would love to do, but I either can’t get the money to do them (now or ever, here in the US at least) or I am too much of a novice in certain fields to be able to write a competitive proposal on the topics that excite me. The need to write proposals, coupled with the perpetual lack of time to learn new things really well, ends up resulting in (at least me) not being as mobile between subfields as I would like. I know, I know, that’s the system and it’s not going away, but I can at least indulge myself with a little exasperated whine-and-rant combo before it’s time to roll up my sleeves again and get crackin’. Those proposals aren’t gonna write themselves.