Seals and Losers

I’m trying to finish a story for a contest that closes soon (really soon), so I won’t be long.


Yesterday’s shopping was an operation that would’ve made Navy Seals proud. Quiet, quick, precise. Hopefully not deadly. I dropped a large amount of money but we’re set for over a week again. It’s so weird seeing all these counters empty — meat, deli, hot food, salad bar. I talked to my meat guy, a butchering enthusiast whose affection for his job often cheers me up. He said they carried most of the stuff they usually did, but everything was packaged and tended to fly off the shelves. I did get enough meat for a week and then some. Everyone was wearing gloves, including me. It was eerie.

I am wondering if I need to buy a second small fridge. Our regular fridge and freezer were not meant for this volume of bulk shopping or cooking.


I got that declination from NSF the other day. I don’t know why, but NSF declines always fuckin’ slay me. Every time I apply as a sole PI, for the past however many years anyway, I get the same bullshit critiques. It doesn’t matter if I put a ton of work into the proposal or very little. My scores are always very good, but no money; regardless of how many papers I have on a topic, people don’t believe I can actually do stuff. Sometimes they literally say one person cannot be an expert in all these techniques, even though I’ve published on all of them. No matter how many papers by someone I cite and how much I position myself with respect to prior art, people say I didn’t cite that relevant work  (this time, one reviewer said I didn’t compare to the work of one person with whom I a) collaborate, b) have cited probably 15 papers from, and c) from whose papers I have used three figures in the proposal, with attribution. Submitting to the NSF,  again and again, is like getting up in the morning to go to school, where I will be relentlessly bullied, and there’s nothing I can do about it, because I have to keep going to school, over and over again. Applying to the NSF makes me feel stupid and hopeless and like I should quit my job. I always get sunk by offhand comments made by people who didn’t bother to engage with the proposal in good faith. No other agency review has this effect on me. With the NSF, as a single PI, it’s as if the community repeatedly tells me I am dumb, untrustworthy, and should just go away already.

Whenever I think of myself as the sole PI vs the NSF, I remember the words of a colleague two doors down from me. The first and last time I shared with him some vulnerability and frustration in the face of grant rejections, he dismissively waved me away and said: “That’s loser talk.” Which obviously made me feel so much better, only not. Not then and not ever. Thank you, colleague, for adding salt to the wound and helping me feel like the biggest loser.

I know it’s really entitled of me to whine about this now, when the world is burning. This counts as my daily allotment of non-COVID freaking out.

Blogosphere, do you have any recent Navy Seal / biggest loser stories? 


P.S. OK, to leave on a positive note, this insanely complicated but amazing contraption:



  1. Ok, first that little unexpected hammer … but then it got so… I’d go into more detail but that would be spoilers. Not just impressive but a ton of humor as well.

    Sympathies on your NSF stories. My friends at [think tank] probably spend as much or more time on the politics/optics of proposals as the actual proposals themselves. Lots of Co-PI or consultants who do nothing but add their names and writing letters of support for experts to sign. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. And I’m sure it’s gendered (probably something that came out in one of those recent reports).

  2. NSF is killer. Earlier in my career, I often got lots of positive reviews and 1 angry reviewer saying that my published research was all wrong. So frustrating because there is no way to deal with random angry people who just don’t like your work. (or don’t like that you are a junior female doing novel things)

  3. NSF may be gendered, but it was several years of beating my head against the random NSF reviews (like getting denied funding for having too much money when I was stretching my previous grant to cover my one remaining grad student) that drove me out of writing research grants and doing research.

    I think that the government bureaucracy is cleverly designed to slow research progress to the point where politicians can keep up (i.e., to a dead stop).

  4. There is something about the NSF that seems uniquely designed to drive researchers crazy. Be it the impossible-to-fulfill coI form, the program officers who put their thumbs on the scale so blatantly, the conflict of interest rules that prohibit external reviews from the most distant of friends but reach out to direct competitors, to the intrusive and byzantine funding regs.

    Last year, our proposal was rejected. Program officer hinted to female PI that it may have had a gender component but then got huffy and angry when she tried to follow up on it. Gossip good; action bad.

    NASA has its issues but at least they conduct their strategic prioritization of funding behind closed doors like respectable people and don’t nickel and dime you about travel expenses.

  5. NSF is such B.S. In my program, nobody on the panels ever gives an Excellent rating. All of the top proposals get 3 VG and maybe 1 E. The program director has to beg the panel to make at least one with some E’s. It is not loser talk. It is frustrating and broken. Maybe if people put energy into actually doing science instead of writing 1000s of dead-end proposals, we would have some sort of advancement.

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