Reviewing Proposals for Foreign Funding Agencies

I spent the first half of this week on travel (fun, exhausting, “the uzhe,” as Eldest would say), followed by a full day of taking kids to various physical exams and dental cleanings, and another day full of meeting my graduate students. Now I have 2.5 weeks before the next trip.

I want to take this opportunity to celebrate a great yet fleeting victory over my work load. As of today, I (temporarily) have no more stuff written by other people (specifically, people who are not my students) in my To-Do folder. In my capacity as an associate editor, I read and then made referrals for the review of a manuscript; I read and then desk-rejected another. I also completed two paper reviews as a referee and submitted a proposal review to a foreign funding agency.

I try to review as much as possible for the journals where I publish often, and I definitely review proposals for the agencies that give me money. The exception is that will generally review stuff where the author is someone whose work I know well, even if it’s in journals or funding agencies I don’t consider.

But, over the last few months, I have been inundated with review requests for proposals to foreign funding agencies: the UK, Swiss, Austrian, and Canadian versions of the NSF. The UK folks alone [Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)] have sent me 5 or 6 proposals since February, and they are relentless in sending reminders.

I have to admit I am a little irritated. Reviewing anything takes a lot of time and is generally not a paid activity. It takes away from the time I could be spending on my own work and on my own students. So when expecting people to review stuff, I think there should be at least some theoretical tit-for-tat: I review for journals where I too have my own papers reviewed, I review for agencies where I too have my own proposals reviewed. However, I really find it hard to justify spending my limited time to review proposals for agencies to which I will never be eligible to submit.

Someone might say, “Well, perhaps they don’t have enough experts in their own country to review?” but I would say the EU is probably plenty large to find experts, and I know many solicitations are open to all EU citizens. Furthermore, most US government agencies (in the physical sciences) rarely use reviewers who are not based in the US. So European agencies bugging me in the US to do proposal review for free, and so often, really makes little sense.

As DH says, it’s my fault – I should have never agreed to review for them even once.

What say you, blogosphere? How do you decide when to accept to review papers and proposals? 

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.

Professorial Nuggets: The Overcommitment Edition

I have been extremely busy, hence the scarcity of posts. I have been wanting to post on a number of interesting topics, but the time just isn’t there… And then I forget or the impetus to write diminishes for whatever reason (mostly due to sleepiness), and then there are more pressing things to tend to anyway…

I have been overcommitted. I say no to a lot of things, but I am still overcommitted. I need to implement even more stringent criteria as to what I do and don’t do. For instance, I make a point of reviewing for journals where I often publish, but not much outside of those unless it’s the work of authors I know. Well, it turns out that I can get 5-8 solicitations in a single week from the journals where I publish often combined with others that consider the work of some of the colleagues from the field. Before you know it, instead of writing papers in my precious no-face-time blocks, I am spending all this time reviewing other people’s papers.

A lot of people request stuff from me, and the problem is that many of these people cannot be entirely ignored  if  I want to be collegial (which I do, mostly because I may need stuff from them down the road). Even if I end up not doing what they want, I often have to spend some time reading something or participating in some meetings or talking on the phone before I can say no lest coming across as a dismissive jerk. I wish people would try to filter when and why they ask for stuff. But self-interest trumps consideration, as is understandable.

There are some service tasks that I committed to, but they turned out to be time-wasters despite having started as interesting or potentially impactful. I think really hard, but end up not being able to find a single saving grace when it comes to doing these tasks; I really resent myself for having taken them up.

I have been teaching a new (to me) large undergraduate course. It’s been fun and challenging for both me and the students. It’s a considerable amount of work and I have no TA (I do have a grader for homework). A large number of adorable terrified undergrads means I have to hold a lot of office hours and I always have someone in my office. None of this has helped with my workload.

I have been privy to the information about some people’s tenure cases. While I knew of the following issue from research and diversity training, after the experiences of this year, I can tell you firsthand that people sometimes write really weird $hit about women in external letters of evaluation (letters are solicited without the candidate’s input from roughly a dozen prominent people in the field). I have never seen anything like that written for a male candidate. It’s not even necessarily negative, but it’s weird, overly personal, such as analyzing the inner workings of the (mysterious female) psyche.

I keep reading and hearing of people writing 10-12 grant proposals per year. How? To whom? I have 2-3 divisions at the NSF where I can submit unsolicited proposals, and they are all due at the same time, once per year, in the fall. I wrote two different brand new grants in parallel for the fall deadline and could not recover for weeks. I recently (a few weeks ago) finished a massive renewal application of one of my large grants to a different federal agency. I don’t think I can write more than 3-4 new, different grants in a year by myself; first of all, there aren’t that many places to send to, and second, there are only so many good disparate ideas I can write up per unit time; I suppose I could do more if they were revisions, but with so few places to submit to and so few submission windows per annum, I am not going to recycle a grant with a low chance of success just pro forma. Plus I actually have to teach and advise students and write papers… And travel, and do service. So writing 10-12 grants per year, is this a biomedical thing? Or an experimental thing? How is it even pulled off amidst all the other work? I don’t know many of my physical science colleagues writing 10-12 grants per year, perhaps only the NIH or DoD-funded folks with humongous groups.

Large center grants get on my nerves — specifically, being asked to participate in grants for large centers, which almost never get funded. These grant writing endeavors are always last-minute, dramatic, and not creative at all. I know all the cool kids participate in them, and I have done it a fair number of times, but I cannot make myself go through the pointless motions again. I am all for collaboration when it’s organic (first we realize we want to do something together, then seek funds), rather than how the teams are often assembled, which is scrambling in response to a funding solicitation.

I crave the time to work on my science. I reread one of my single-author papers from several years ago. It is really cool. I never get to do that any more.

What say you, blogosphere? How do you keep your workload manageable? What do you say no to? What frequency of grant writing is appropriate for your discipline? Center grants — yay or nay?

Typesetting Grant Proposals

I am in a physical science field, addressing problems by means of theory and computation. I also work a lot with experimentalists.

When I write paper or proposals with experimental colleagues, since they all use MS Word, I use it too. I also use MS Word for a lot of small documents (writing homework assignments and tests, letters of recommendation, all sorts of administrative documents).

On the other hand, I write papers with my students exclusively in LaTeX. The students’ dissertations, which are largely based on their published papers, are also in LaTeX. There is really nothing like LaTeX for producing beautiful documents with a lot of math. And, of course, the publisher that is of greatest interest to physicists (the American Physical Society) prefers it — the beautiful REVTeX two-column template (REVTeX is a collection of LaTeX macros) is the gold standard of preprints, widely recognizable as the “template of the true physicist” (see arXiv, for instance).

I also write a lot of proposals by myself. This year is worse than average in the number that I have to submit. In the past, I have written grants in MS Word and I have written grants in LaTeX. And I have a confession to make: of late, I have been writing my grants in MS Word.

Grants are complicated documents, often bridging between disparate bodies of literature; they generally have strict formatting requirements and very high standards for readability and flow. Every grant writer will recognize the need to use the available page are efficiently, without cramming too much or wasting precious space.

LaTeX, in general, will let you format the document as you see fit, but will do so grudgingly. It always knows better than you what looks good, and it generally really does; it incorporates the best typographic practices, as it was meant as a tool that lets you focus on content while not dwelling over layout. However, writing proposals is where you need to have it your way because of the spacing requirements. I have lost a lot of time in the past wrestling with LaTeX to have the wrapped figure where I want it and not where LaTeX deems it appropriate, trying to reduce the white space around the figure etc. Also, excessive math (or virtually any math) has no place in proposals, even theory ones (typesetting math is what makes Latex superior).

While it doesn’t bother me in the least that I have to compile in order to look at the text when I write a paper, it bothers me a lot when I write proposals. The proposal is a work of both form and substance, in which text flow and layout are critical. Also, proposals are usually written (by me and the likes of me, at least) on a very tight schedule, and I find that just having one document that I can easily scroll down or up alleviates some of the tension. In contrast, when I write a  proposals in LaTeX, I usually have a master file and separate files for different chapters/sections  (which makes it easier to track content and edit), but — in the mad dash to the deadline —  working with source files in Latex  makes me feel disoriented and interferes with my work flow and thought process; none are good in a time crunch. So I go with the WYSIWYG MS Word.

So, yes; I am ashamed to say, these days I use MS Word to write proposals. *hangs head in shame, turns in physical scientist card*

I am actually a little worried about being judged for writing a proposal using MS Word instead of LaTeX during proposal review (the one I am writng now, in particular). There is a lot of “one true path” among scientists, from the choice of the operating system [e.g. real computational scientists would not use anything but Linux (Mac is acceptable, but Windows is only for the dimwitted)]  to programming language or any piece of software. I review a lot of proposals, and the ones from pure physicists, especially theorists, are usually written in LaTeX (with its recognizable Computer Modern Roman, a pleasantly plump font). I am seriously worried that my use of the Text Editor of Pure Evil will immediately dismiss me as not being a real scientist in the eyes of some who may review this particular grant. My husband thinks I am nuts for worrying about such things; of course, you’d think that the content of the proposal is what matters. But we all know scientists can be territorial, petty, judgmental, and dismissive (you know, just like other humans) and it is not inconceivable that I might be looked down up because of the non-LaTeXness of my proposal (not like my femaleness, apparent from the proposal cover page, will do much to help). Then again, it may be the nerves talking. I do tend to lose my belief in humanity and become more misanthropic than usual at proposal crunch time.

What say you, esteemed blogosphere? How do you typeset your proposals? Do you care about how people have typeset their  proposals when you review them? 

Dear Santa

What I want for Christmas this year is to, for once, not have to spend most of the kids’ two-week winter break trying to somehow squeeze in more time to work. I just want to do what I imagine normal state employees with vacation time do — take the time between Christmas and New Year’s off and actually focus on family or travel or getting some rest.

I want to, for just a little while, not constantly feel the guilt because of the looming mountain of work. I hate it that the only time to make significant strides in research or writing papers is between semesters, which makes it impossible to ever take a vacation. I love my work, but I hate it that there is never enough time for it and that I dread stepping away from it, because it just means that more work awaits my return.

Dear Santa, I wish I could have a winter break that is actually a break, without there being hell to pay once it’s over.
But, I know it might be too late to ask for it this year, especially because I have deadlines coming up and a ton of travel. I hear you are quite the globetrotter yourself!

If it’s easier, you could just talk to the Federal Grants Fairy, the Tooth Fairy’s second cousin twice removed, and put in a good word for my outstanding proposals. That would be swell! I have just the space under the Christmas tree for a notice-of-award printout, all rolled up and tied up with a pretty red ribbon…




As of a few years ago, if you are an employee of my university, you must purchase airline tickets through the singular university-approved vendor. That is, if want your ticket reimbursed before the trip; if you dare buy a ticket in any other way, you have to wait until after the trip to get reimbursed.

Somebody lined their filthy pockets with this deal.

For domestic flights, you can use the online reservation system (based on the Concur platform, which I take is quite common), but then at the end there’s an agent who checks the reservation and finalizes it, then skims a fee. What annoys me awfully is that a) every time you call or email them, they charge an additional fee (even if all the calls are in regards to the same trip); b) you cannot book international flights, no matter how simple, through the online tool, you have to call or email the agency; c) you have to use the agency even though you can get lower prices pretty much anywhere online (I like Kayak for price comparison). If I want to take the better deal found elsewhere — because, you know, it’s my grant money and it doesn’t grow on trees, and we as PIs are supposed to be good stewards of these funds — I have to use personal funds and then wait until after the trip to get reimbursed; that’s fine for domestic flights where it’s OK to buy a ticket 2-3 weeks before the trip, but not for overseas travel.

I have two complicated, multi-city international trips this summer; I have no intention of having several thousand dollars sitting on my credit cards or having to be taken from my savings while I wait for reimbursement more than half a year from now. So I contacted the agency with the preferred itinerary. We have exchanged several emails regarding this trip. Every leg is more expensive than found elsewhere, and that’s sans fee; I am dying to find out how much of a fee the whole ordeal will incur.

And that’s why we can’t have nice things.