Recently, I lamented not submitting a polished single-PI proposal and instead going with what I felt wasn’t a particularly strong collaborative proposal as my one and only allowed submission within the annual unsolicited proposal window for a particular NSF program. I have several outstanding proposals to the NSF; of those, this collaborative proposals is the one I had the lowest expectations for; I really didn’t think it would get funded, for it was far from perfect.

It turns out, it has been recommended for funding! Shows you what I know.

On the one hand, it’s always nice to get a new grant. Money is money, even if ridiculously tight (in part because of the overall small budget, and in part because I got stiffed by collaborator). It covers one graduate student as a research assistant and little else. I have something like three days of summer salary in the budget, which is really only there to absorb the inevitable hikes in the fringe benefits rate associated with the student stipend and maybe cover part of the student travel to a single conference. I might also be able to purchase a few reams of paper on top of that before all the money is out.

On the other hand, NSF seems to like me when I play a supporting role to an experimentalist, but not very much when I seek money on my own. It could be that my ideas suck, but those same ideas seem to do just fine as long as they are packaged as secondary to experiment. It probably doesn’t hurt that the experimentalists are boys. I’d be angry if I weren’t so sleepy.

In any case, endless polishing of text is obviously not necessary for funding.



  1. I’ve been an investigator submitting grant proposals (well over 90% of them being collaborative efforts) for over 15 years, and I’ve basically given up trying to figure out what’s going to be awarded. The proposals which I feel are amazing, the best, work the longest and hardest and most painstakingly on, and particularly proud of, never get funded and often get savage reviews. On the other hand, the proposals which actually do get funded are the ones that either get slapped together almost haphazardly at the last minute, or, I think “what a pile of crap, why did I put my name on this stinking mess?” I’m convincing myself it’s just basically a lottery anyway.

  2. Sometimes I am just completely baffled when my experimental collaborators imply that they are working with me (theory) because I am apparently and automatically equipped with making pretty figures (under the broad computer/computational conflated thingies) so that we can get the ‘cover’ of the journal!! I completely agree with you regarding the apparent irrelevance of polishing of text. I agonize over a comma, usage of ‘the’, consistent voice of the text etc., and these days I am getting a distinct feeling that all my pursuit of polished submission is being seen more as a secretarial/editorial job, rather than submitting a well-written document. It is almost as if, the boys have these ideas which they write them down in a rough manner, and I with my feminine secretarial skills will have to make it presentable to the world. I am not sure I am like this anymore 😦

  3. I just got reviews back from an NSF proposal yesterday that had scored as medium priority in the last two rounds and got a not competitive this round, with the highest reviewer score of ‘good’…this being basically the same proposal but better each time with reviewer comments (and I’m not in a field where the ideas are getting stale). Agree with you and previous comments that NSF panels are incredibly inconsistent, so if we assume a 10% success rate it just means keep submitting and hope the odds will eventually even out.

  4. In the same day – for the same fellowship app, I got a “not competitive” from the NSF and an almost perfect impact score from the NIH. I’ll be really curious to read the NSF comments to see what didn’t work for them. I had hoped for NSF funding bc they pay fellows at a higher rate and give more money to support research (and funds can also be used to help you move).

  5. I just had something very similar happen. Ideas in the proposal were old and unoriginal. Team was haphazard with one not-particularly-productive member. Writing was horrendous, I couldn’t even understand the project summary and it was sent to me like 3 hours before the deadline so I could only fix my part.

    I was very close to withdrawing at the last minute. Glad I didn’t because it was recommended for funding with glowing reviews.

    What a crazy system we have. At the moment I am actually pretty flush with funding and don’t even need this. Wish I could store it for an inevitable slow period…

  6. My experience with the one NSF panel I’ve been on is that at best you can give yourself a 50% chance of funding. This panel seemed to be completely transparent and fair: no one dominated the conversation, there were lots of ad-hoc reviews from subject experts that we balanced with our own reviews, we considered both feasibility and impact (mix of “visionary” and “turn the crank on a productive project”), etc. However, out of ~30 proposals we could only put 4 in the “almost guaranteed funding” pile and another 3 in the “fund if you possibly can” pile (expecting one or two to be funded). There were several proposals with four Excellents that didn’t get in either pile, just because there were too many great applications and they just weren’t as exciting to the panel. Completely heartening to see the process, and completely demoralizing to see the end result simply due to the ‘payline’

  7. I thought NSF didn’t allow you to buy office supplies with grant funds—they have to come from overhead. You might be able to buy a dongle for a laptop though, so that you can continue to do presentations at the conferences you don’t have the funding to attend.

  8. I wrote 5 grants for NSF/NIH. The one that got funded on my first attempt (from NSF) was the one that I just threw away. On the other hand the ideas that I really wanted funded (and was my main focus) got funded after 8 tries (yes I know it sucks but hey it got funded eventually).

    May be there is a broader theme to this since there is much anecdotal evidence that the grants that get funded are the ones that we didn’t care about (didn’t polish enough, didn’t ponder enough) gets funded and the ones that we agonize over goes over the unfunded pile. May be we polish and polish and it makes it worse lol

  9. My second try for an NSF grant just got funded. It’s definitely a more polished version than our first draft was– corrected some reasonable misunderstandings based on unclear writing on my part (well, more like– I added subject headers directly addressing things that reviewers eyes had skipped over in the original proposal) and directly addressed some unanticipated dumbass comments that the same -ist panel member also made this time, but was outvoted on this time.

    But I think what made the big difference was the list of reviewers I recommended the second time but hadn’t recommended the first (first submission was a lot more rushed than the second). People who actually know what we’re trying to do gushed about what an awesome project it is which I think helped balance out the ignorant -ist stuff. One of the reviewers anticipated and basically rebutted the -ist guy.

    DH says he never gets things funded from NSF when he gets such a range of scores as I did (Excellent to Fair), and my experience with the NIH is pretty similar– the score matters, but I’m glad they took a chance on me! Now I just need to, you know, do the work.

  10. N&M: And yes on suggested referees. I have found that my colleagues who are successful with NSF funding always submit fairly extensive lists of suggested reviewers as well as those to avoid. Well-funded people seem to be keenly aware of potential competition and hostility (to the extent that was surprising to me), as well as of who their real friends are.

  11. One of the amazing and unexpected benefits of liking to mentor people is that as I’ve been getting older, the folks I’ve helped in the past are now in a position in their own careers to be on committees.

  12. Grumpy and FR: On one hand, sometimes the haphazardly thrown-together proposals are exciting because they feature brand new ideas, so people can forgive a lot if they find the idea exciting (and they are not nitpicky a$$holes or overpowered by other nitpicky a$$holes on the panel).
    OTOH, I have definitely seen proposals that have been “overpolished,” for lack of a better word: you can tell the authors have been slapped around in panels a few times so the current proposal is written in a defensive crouch and drips with anxiety; you get a negative vibe when you read it, if I am making sense, and even though it’s technically tight, is makes you feel uneasy (not how you want your champion to feel).

    I have generally been able to find the money for the things I really wanted to do, but sometimes it took a few tries and multiple agencies. But I have also given up on a few projects altogether because the proposals didn’t pan out and I wasn’t too invested in pursuing them. There’s one now that I might need to let go for good because I fear it’s about to go stale and there just doesn’t seem to be a good home for it. Or I will do it on the side, with some fringe funds, as it really tickles my fancy.

  13. Congrats on being recommended for funding!! Sorry to hear about the tight money and “supporting” role.

    My last set of NSF reviews was similar to pyrope’s (and for a project I’m really excited about and have been moving ahead with on a shoestring basis): pretty good reviews the first two times and then slammed on the third. And the third time, a colleague had taken a look at a draft and gave me some ideas and feedback that greatly improved the “hook” in the first page or so. I thought the relevance was much clearer and well explained that third time but reviewers didn’t get “hooked”.

  14. “Well-funded people seem to be keenly aware of potential competition and hostility (to the extent that was surprising to me), as well as of who their real friends are.”

    So how DO you get to be aware of that? Honestly, I wouldn’t know (I only suspect one person that is cheering me on, but that person is close to retirement)!

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