White Papers, White Knuckles

It’s August, which means that, when I am not fielding the barrage of emails that signal the arrival of a new school year, I am preparing for proposal submissions in the fall. 

As flush as I’ve been in recent years, the funding winds haven’t been that favorable during the pandemic, which is a source of anger (mostly self-directed) and guilt (maybe if I didn’t suck so hard, I’d get these grants funded). 

In any case, I will be submitting between six and eight different proposals in the coming semester, three with new collaborators (which I am excited about, as it will be nice to have someone to bounce ideas and writing from), and between three and five by myself. There may be even more submissions, as a couple of proposals might go to multiple agencies. (By the way, this is a higher-than-usual number of proposals for me; outside of special solicitations, two-to-four per semester is more common for me, depending on current levels of funding.) 

Right now, I am writing white papers (white papers are short, written proposal pitches, 2-3 pages in length),  sending them out, and collecting feedback from program managers, so as to decide what goes where and when, and finalize the targets and timeline for submission. Paper writing has been somewhat on the back burner as I’m trying to get all these white papers out, and I am trying to fix that. I want to send in a manuscript revision and another new submission before September hits. 

I am also trying to suppress the waves of despair that wash over me every so often over all this work I have to do, but which will largely amount to nothing, even if I am ultimately successful and get one or two awards from all these proposals. Sometimes I wish there were a way out of the proposal-writing churn. It’s so disheartening knowing that I  have to keep slinging spaghetti at a wall with <10% stickiness probability. But that’s the job. And it’s better than many other jobs. But proposal writing (and not dislike of teaching or actually doing science) is the reason I will actually retire when I hit retirement age and not a moment later. I will not keep working forever, as I originally thought I would. At  least a new kid will be able to get the job in my stead sooner rather than later. 

Anyhow, all this reminds of the wisdom shared by @drugmonkeyblog on Twitter: When it comes to agencies that use panel reviews (like NSF or NIH), it’s good to keep in mind that sometimes program managers a priori discourage proposals that ultimately review well by the panel. I would agree with Drug Monkey to shoot your shot, because it’s happened to me and other people I know enough times that we’d get a proposal submission discouraged based on the white paper, supposedly as the topic isn’t a high priority or whatever, only to a) submit it anyway and have it review really well or b) not submit, but then later receive a proposal from someone else to review and that proposal is on the identical topic and with similar proposed methods as the discouraged proposal; this other PI , often with a better pedigree, either wasn’t similarly discouraged (great; now I can feel guilty because my white papers suck, too), or, more likely, didn’t care and submitted the proposal anyway. I’d say, if there’s panel review and you have an idea that fits the posted program parameters, go for it. (N.B. Funding decisions at DoD are much more dependent on what the program manager wants to fund. In that case, heed their advice and their discouragement.)

To end, related Twitter wisdom: 


  1. It’s just a shame, because it didn’t used to be that way. My advisor (PhD 1971, retiring now) would put in an NSF proposal every few years and have a >1/3 acceptance rate to cover summer salary and a postdoc or student. The rest of the time, he did the actual science: taking data, writing papers, etc. Now, PIs have to be rainmakers and it’s exhausting.

  2. @Astra, It was that way for me in 1982–89 also. As long as I didn’t need more than 1 or 2 grad students, I only had to write a grant proposal every couple of years (which was just as well, because each proposal took about 6 months).

    I eventually gave up on writing grant proposals after the funding percentage dropped so low that I would have had to spend *all* my time writing proposals to have even a 50% chance of getting any funding. I switched my scholarship to teaching and writing a textbook instead.

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