Grant Woes

Yesterday I found out that one of my NSF proposals got declined. I was disappointed, as I think this was probably the best proposal I have ever written.

I read the comments and felt even more down. The comments indicated that it was poorly placed panel-wise.

It received 3 “goods”, and the comments were pro forma. First, the fact that there were a minimal number of reviews (usually there are more than 3 when the panel is well suited to review a proposal) was the first indication that there was no one there who would champion it. Second, the program manager had told me that theory proposals don’t usually review well just because; so this one didn’t either, even though the project is as applied as they come, I have plenty of preliminary data, and two enthusiastic in-house experimental collaborators who contributed letters of support. Comments were things like the proposal is poorly organized (Why did I not have a separate section on preliminary work as opposed to have each task  described in terms of what I have done and then what I  will do? Well, it has worked well thus far many times. Why is there no preliminary data comparing to experiments of other groups? Uhm, yeah, there are probably 6-7 figures showing exactly experiments from other groups versus theory without phenomenon versus my theory with phenomenon. Why is there no discussion on different materials used? Uhm, because they are well known and characterized and a detailed discussion is unnecessary for people at all in this field, while a brief discussion was indeed given.)

The thing with doing theory and simulation in the physical sciences is that, unless you want to be subservient to an experimentalist with DoD funding, there are not many agencies that fund purely theoretical work. And NSF allows for only a single submission window per year, and one proposal per division (which is pretty broad). People get creative and target several different divisions, but there are definitely whole topical areas that fall through the cracks. And I am tired of being shafted in experiment-only panels; I go through great pains to make the proposal readeable and understandable to non-theorists (not a single goddamn formula!) and then the panelists don’t even bother.

What’s funny is that this project is nearly complete. We have done well over 1/2 of it already with fringe funding (TA’s, internal fellowships, that sort of thing) so the story was as complete as I was ever going to write. There is no detail that I did not address because everything worth  addressing actually came up and was discussed in the proposal. As I said, I don’t think I ever wrote a better proposal, it was polished, and thorough, and just wonderful. And the criticisms just show it should not have been reviewed where it went.

I will tell you one thing: experimentalists to whom I show the work fall all over themselves with joy at the predictive capability of the simulation. As they should, because it’s unique and powerful. Maybe I will go against all I hold dear, clean up the code and allow for download at a fee. Maybe I should go with a Kickstarter campaign. I don’t need or want profit, but if everyone wants to use it, then I should be able to pay personnel to further develop it.

But I digress. Because there are not many agencies where a theorist of my ilk can get funding, every  three years I go through this cycle of despair: what if none of the grants get funded? What if I am completely out of money? What happens then?

I would not be as badly off as the people on soft money who lose their labs and their salaries (not common in the physical sciences, apparently common in the biomedical world). But not being able to have students would suck. I could still do some work on my own; but, in my department and college, how much you are worth locally equals how much money you bring in. I would suddenly become a lesser faculty member, and what I say would not matter as much as it does now.

My former postdoc is a junior faculty member elsewhere. He’s smart and overall just great, but has not been able to secure funding thus far in spite of writing grants continuously for a couple of years now. I can understand that he is panicked. If he doesn’t land a grant soon, he may never actually show to anyone what he would have to offer.

I never thought I would retire, ever. These days, I think I will retire when the time comes just to relieve myself of the need to stress about where the support for my students is coming from. As a full professor, I have A LOT of teaching and service. The time I have for research is spent on hunting for money. I wish I could spend that time advising students or writing papers or thinking about what we’ll do next.

It’s not the end of the world, and I am better off than many, perhaps most. Still lots of irons in the fire.
But I don’t think I want to spend all of my time this way.

When did it stop being important that we actually think and do science and instead what became important is scrounging for money to do the science?
It’s so exhausting and so effed up.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think scientists should be having completely free rein — it’s taxpayer money and stewardship is necessary. But we are at the extreme where considerably less good science is funded than proposed, which cannot be good.

I will lick my wounds for another day or two, but then it’s back in the saddle again, scouting new funding opportunities.


  1. Not knowing the details of your department, this may be a slightly naive question, but since you suggest that the groundwork has been laid- in fact over half of the work has been done already, could you find a student(s) with, as you say, “fringe funding (TA’s, internal fellowships, that sort of thing)…” to complete the project, even if it takes a year or two longer? What are the politics/practices of TA allocation in your department? Are you not allowed to have a grad student unless you have full external funding for them?

  2. Being a theorist in an experimentalist’s world is very frustrating. (Although now that I do experiments too, I find that the grant-frustration you describe is universal, and the experimentalists have the same problems with ending up in the wrong very broad panel/study-section and people not understanding why they are doing what they are doing.)

    When I encounter situations like this I come back to the point that grants are only a means to an end. Grants are not real science and one should never allow oneself to think that they are. The real science is in the discovery and reporting of that discovery (usually in publications, but sometimes in released simulations or other code). The goal of scrounging for money is not to get the money but to do the science. If you can find a way to do the science in spite of this, then you should!

  3. That sucks… so sorry. It’s a crapshoot – you know how this works. Goes with the job… It’ll be better next time (or sometime). Sending you a cyber-chocolate this time. It helps with getting back in the saddle (helps with anything, really 🙂

  4. GoG, there are departments that teach large service courses and have nearly unlimited pots of TA funds. In one such department, a colleague at one time had a group of 10 people, of whom he paid no one, they all TA-ed. Alas, my department is not like that. We have a small and ever-shrinking TA budget. So basically, for the most part, I cannot bring a student in unless I know I can pay them (which is also a bad use of funds in the first year or so, as the students are useless in research and mostly take classes, but I have to pay them anyway). And I have to essentially get two grants per student, being that the PhD is about 5 years and grants last 3 years.

    AnonP, thanks for the links! Sorry you were stuck in moderation for a bit, it happens when links are present.

    Qaz, yes, this: “Grants are not real science and one should never allow oneself to think that they are.” I tell myself the exact same thing. Science is the purpose of all these grant-writing shenanigans. I tell myself I always have the option of just doing the work myself. But in my department money=power. We recently went through a thorough revision of the workload policy and it was months of battles between the haves and have-nots. I am (so far) well funded. especially for a theorist and have a larger group than most (8 students at present) , on par with many experimental groups. But the largest experimental groups are 20+ people, and I appreciate it’s a ton of time to raise and manage all that money. But it’s disconcerting to see that people with a lot of grant money have a disproportionately large say in what happens in the department and college or how resources get allocated. They certainly look down their noses on people with less money and are generally quite high maintenance. It’s as if having money, regardless of how well it is spent or managed, indeed makes you a more valuable asset to the university (upper administration licking lips over all the F&A dollars).

    I think we all, myself included, forget that we are supposed to be here to teach students and do research, advancing human knowledge. I am teaching a large undergrad course. One student, who’s a little older, returning student, came to tell me that I am not like other professors he’s met here. When I asked how so, he said “You seem like you actually give a $hit.” I thanked him and said something about others caring but being busy, but it stuck with me. I know he is not wrong. Why is everything but bringing money now a nuisance?

    But this is all impotent rage as I am confined to the hamster wheel. Tigerlily, I think I will have some of that cyber-chocolate now (yum!) Thanks!

  5. It sucks when a grant application is rejected… 😦 Here’s a cyber-chocolate egg for you! (

    Here in the Great White North, in my naive experience, it is not that impossible to get subsistence funding (i.e. 1 or 2 students). But to get to a point where things really can take off (a few more students or, I wish, a postdoc) you really need to get into industrial partnership programs. Which makes more fundamental research (either theoretical or experimental) more complicated to fund properly.

  6. More virtual chocolate, and empathy, and thank you for writing this post – sometimes it really helps to know other people have the same dysfunction in their departments!

  7. Yesterday some colleagues were complaining that a postdoc’s fellowship application was dinged because the advisor doesn’t have enough funding to support the postdoc forever.

  8. That sucks. I’m sorry.

    I think there is a much broader problem with funding computational tools in academia. I know that even people who are developing very useful resources that a lot of people use sometimes cannot get funding for that work, and it ends up being a part time project for people who are funded by other projects. Back when I was considering whether to go into academia or industry, I poked around enough to determine that the work I was most interested in (developing databases) was basically unfundable. I’ve heard that is better now, but that it is still hard.

    I wonder if part of the problem is that people are used to getting so many things for free online, so they begin to expect more and more things for free, and never really come to understand the effort that goes into producing quality computational tools.

    If you decide to charge a fee for downloading the software, I recommend checking out GumRoad. I use it as an independent channel for people to download my job search book, and it is extremely easy to use. I think it even supports a “pay what you want” option.

  9. Finding the right venue for an idea/grant can be tricky. The limited amount of calls for broader fields or subfields makes it impossible to get multiple grants in per year. Then typically only 10% gets funded, which makes it really difficult to get succes at every submission. On the other hand, as you mention, departments at research school do expect one to get not just 1 grant, with a renewal every 3 years. No the minimum is 1 grant/year after an initial trial period. A lot of schools/departments have even rules on the amount of money to bring in before you can make tenure (1-2 million, depending on the ego of the department/school).

    However, if money would be the reason schools/departments give power to people, than I know a whole bunch of physics fields that shouldn’t be as well represented and other really underrepresented fields should have much more power.

    Separately, as somebody who does modeling, can write codes (but hasn’t taken the time to develop a new code/simulation tool in a long while) and who has branched out into experiments, none of the grant calls I know are setup to deal with this validation/predictive capability. In my field, this in between field is dominated by pure theorists, who don’t understand experiments and their limitations or how data is measured. For those who work really at the in between barrier (between theory and modeling), I can tell you it is the most difficult project to sell, because it tends to not fit in any panel. I would argue this is a historical mistake that will eventually be rectified.

  10. I sympathize with you. When I first started at my institution, TA funds were more or less unlimited, and thus it was easy to get students to work on some projects (that would not otherwise be $-intensive for equipment, experimental costs etc.) that were otherwise unfunded. Now, with shrinking budgets, TA’s are pretty much a “perk” reserved for the untenured faculty as a helping hand for them to assist in jump starting their programmes- which is actually a good idea.

    With regards to the large groups “are 20+ people,”- OMG, how can one effectively mentor that many persons? Is it fair to the students/trainees? I’ve seen some groups like that, which seem to me like “assembly line science” or “pecking order science”- the head of one such lab proudly explained to me, “it’s easy, you just oversee the postdocs, the postdocs train the PhD students, and the PhD students train the Master’s students.” It may be efficient and bring in the $ that the administration wants, but is that a wise model to emulate? I, personally, have decided that (in my field, in my lab, in my situation: other situations may be different) I will limit myself to no more than 4 or 5 grad students at a time: more than that, it’s not fair to them, they can’t get the amount of attention and mentoring they deserve. (And even then, some colleagues see that as a huge group.)

  11. The academic teaching and research system is breaking down. I am trying to decide if I want to keep on keeping on or leave and find a better match in industry. I am not rostered faculty and while things used to be moderately secure for those of us who build instruments, that is no longer the case. For one thing, it’s getting hard to load my soft money salary on grants and still have them be competitive. That was always an issue with NSF grants, but it’s even coming up on the NASA side now–not a good harbinger.

    In many respects I am happy I didn’t get a TT job, though: as you note, how is one supposed to win grants and tenure when funding rates are trending below 10%? It’s a crapshoot at that point.

  12. I want to say that it’s super useful to hear you talk through the funding process (even – or especially – when it’s less than successful)

  13. If there are more than three reviews from a panel, it is a sign that the panel did not fit and the Program Officer sent it out for other reviews before the panel met as advisory for the panel. Panels will listen to outside reviews.

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