research publication

Reader Question: The Care and Feeding of Your NSF Grant

Reader J asked  (In July! J, I am sorry for being so late with this response!):

If you wouldn’t mind a blog request:  now that I have survived the postdoc phase, got a job, have survived some teaching, written the boatload of grants … I got an NSF grant this winter (I’m still shocked, actually!) and although I know the basic idea is:  “do the work”, I could use some mentoring / blog posts on: the care and feeding of your grant.  How often do you contact your PO, and what do you discuss? Up until now, I’ve only discussed prospective Aims, and study section comments. What do you aim for for progress reports?

In my specific case, my institution’s grad program isn’t that great, and my grad student just dropped out to take a more lucrative job.  I’ve put out an ad for another postdoc immediately, since grad recruiting takes so long, but I feel like with NSF money I should be seeking to train grad students, and undergrads (have them) – is this a big problem, or should I be looking to be productive first and mission-oriented second?

First, congratulations on receiving an NSF grant!

I will answer based on my experiences, which are likely sort-of universal, but I assume there are some differences among directorates/divisions/programs.

First, hiring a postdoc when your budget specified students only: this should definitely be cleared with your program officer (PO), because, as of a few years ago, if you want a postdoc, you have to submit a postdoc mentoring plan, and it gets evaluated during peer review (you never did, because you originally didn’t plan for a postdoc). So it’s not just a simple matter of rebudgeting. Best-case (and likely) scenario, you contact your PO, they say no problem, just submit a postdoc mentoring plan, and that’s it. I have done the converse (budgeted for a postdoc, hired grad students when no good postdoc found) a couple of times with a couple of different agencies and it was never an issue. Indeed, the most important thing is to get research done, and if you have issues recruiting good students and can find a good postdoc, that’s a strong incentive for staffing change.

In general, NSF cares that you do good science with their funds and publish in good venues. They do not micromanage, so you don’t actually have to contact your program officer ever again in your life if you don’t want to, as long as you submit your annual reports on time. However, I recommend touching base with your program officer especially if you have some exciting data or a new high-profile paper, as that helps them look good internally, and also helps the agency make a case for their own budget in front of the congress. Some of the POs are rotators, so by the time your grant expires they will be gone; you can decide how that affects your attitude towards regular contact. But with permanent POs for sure, and I recommend not treating rotators any differently, touch base on occasion and simply ask — do they want to see your papers, how often? Basically, what can you do to make them and their program look good with their bosses? While with the NSF the panels are key, the PO is who picks the panel composition, who chooses who reviews your proposal, and who can pick you up from the pile of Recommended (but not Highly Recommended) and get you funded anyway. And it is possible (though rare) to get NSF proposals continuously renewed if you have been very productive based on this productivity alone; I have never had this happen, but I know some Greybeards who’ve had a continuous NSF grant for decades.

I have had a grant with another agency for years now (competitively renewed) and I always send my new papers to the PO, largely because I know he’s a huge science geek, really curious and passionate about the field and with a strong technical track record before becoming a PO, so I think he actually enjoys reading these. Whenever there is an editorial highlight, or a cover article, or anything notable with the work they funded, I most definitely let them know, because it is important and they use these highlights to lobby for more money and to keep getting funded.

What goes into an annual report? Well, those will be submitted through https://www.research.gov/ and I recommend going through the PI demo site.  I have had different POs request different level of detail for accomplishments, so I always prepare Major Activities and Accomplishments as separate files (with figures) and upload. There is a lot of information that gets entered in text boxes, most of it mundane. In principle, you can submit perfectly passable reports with minimum bling just by filling out the text boxes. I recommend asking the PO if they have use for a more detailed technical narrative of Major Activities or Accomplishments, or any other thoughts on the annual reports.

With the NSF, some POs are responsive and enthusiastic and welcome interaction with their PIs; others are hard to get a hold of, grumpy, and unresponsive. I have a suspicion that the first kind may slowly transform into the second kind as the stress and drudgery take their toll. But doesn’t it happen to the best of us? If you have a pleasant and responsive PO, enjoy interacting with them! But ask first what they need and expect — no harm in being explicit. They will likely appreciate it.

What say you, blogosphere? 

Notes from the Road 5

After this post, some commenters have been wondering about my origins. There are many countries in Europe that would fit the description of tiny and inconsequential (whether or not their citizens are willing to admit it). Knowing which one specifically I am from would probably not bring much excitement or illumination to most of my readership.

Now, finding out that I am secretly Martian, or royalty, or a 60-year-old truck driver named Big Mike who suffers from hypertension and enjoys ballroom dancing — now those would be fun revelations!

I can also vouch that even finding the identity of a pseudonymous academic blogger is essentially anticlimactic. I mean, who could the person possibly be? Unless they are a Houdini-like master of deception (which sounds quite exhausting and I can’t understand why anyone would want to impersonate a professor), the person turns out to be who they say they are: another faculty member at some school, working in a field likely different from yours.

I mean, it would be a revelation to find out that a colleague from down the hall, who I am willing to bet doesn’t even read blogs, is in fact FSP. Or it would be fun to find out that CPP worked as a male stripper to put himself through college, or that DM spent his youth smoking (and dealing!) pot. But other than that, they are just people doing the same job elsewhere and in a different field. I think we are generally fine not knowing one another in meat space; it doesn’t add anything to the online experience. Besides, as a few bloggy friends who know me can vouch, and to paraphrase nicoleandmaggie, I am probably cooler online than in real life.

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I spent a lot of time with my former PhD advisor, and we had a great time and a lot of beer. The topics of inspiration and the passion for work and regretting the time spent or not spent on work or on family came up. He is still as passionate about his work as ever, in his mid-70s’, and he mentioned this quote from Steve McQueen’s movie “Le Mans” (I haven’t seen it):

Lisa Belgetti: When people risk their lives, shouldn’t it be for something very important? Michael Delaney: Well, it better be. Lisa Belgetti: But what is so important about driving faster than anyone else? Michael Delaney: Lotta people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.

Isn’t that a great quote? Science is important to the people who do it well. When you are immersed in the work, nothing else matters. It is hard for people who are not particularly good at much to understand it.

I am constantly guilt-ridden that I don’t enjoy homemaking or playing with my kids or other womanly pursuits very much; I simply enjoy working more. (Some people feel they should come to tell me that I shouldn’t have had kids in that case. If you feel the urge to say that, don’t; instead, ask yourself why you think only women with no professional ambition or drive are supposed to procreate, or worse, why you think women have to squash their professional lives in the service of family.) I crave the mental stimulation and, as much as I love my kids, family life doesn’t scratch that itch. Legos and plastic animals can get very boring very fast (especially by kid No 3); shopping for curtains or home decorating never even manages to rise beyond the level of tedious. Perhaps I am a horrible person, but somehow I don’t think the male version of me would ever obsess about this.

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I just got a resubmission of a paper to review. The first time around, I requested extensive edits, while the other referee accepted with minor revisions. In the response letter, I am amused by how the other referee was thanked for “his/her comments,” while in my case “we thank the referee for his comments… In his point No xx, the referee says…” The authors sort of recognize the existence of women referees, but us ladies must be the softie referee, certainly never the hardliner. Tee-hee.

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I am coming home soon, I can’t wait. En route, I came across this delicious overpriced latte with a gloriously firm head of foam: Latte

Crankypants

There is work to do tonight, but I can’t make myself do it. Preparing a whole new midterm for one student who was ill, writing a letter of nomination for a student for an award, getting an abstract/bio ready for an upcoming talk.

This has been a really difficult semester and I am really cranky.

I am teaching a new (to me) large undergraduate course. I have essentially no TA support to speak of (thankfully, I have a grader for homework), and the course has required a lot of time to prep the materials (homework, homework solutions, exams) and grade the exams. I teach the lectures and the discussion and I have more office hours than usual, because they are needed — there is always someone in my office during those. This past weekend I graded nearly 100 exams; it took all weekend. The weekend before, I wrote the solutions to about 50 homework problems (postings of solutions before the midterm, making up for missed postings due to work travel). If you are at a teaching-heavy institution, what I wrote might seem like nothing, but I am at a research institution, and teaching is not supposed to take up 20+ hours a week.

I have had more travel than I am comfortable with this whole academic year, and much of it was service related, which means I traveled, worked a ton, then came back to a punishing backlog of work. I have a break in travel till July, and then it’s 6 effing trips between mid-July and mid-September.

I have written too many proposals, and the new NSF fall deadline is just around the corner. I also have some schmoozing with DoD to do to see if some money could be had.

I have way too much service at the department and university level. One of the university-level committees has turned out to be drastically more work than initially promised, so it has been a huge time drain and I have constantly been pissed off about it. It does nothing for me or my career, it is just a humongous waste of time and I feel like a fool for having agreed to do any of it. The way the whole thing is run is unbelievably inefficient and just plain wrong.

Eldest’s swim practice has moved to 4:30, which means I often have to leave at 3:50 to pick him up and drive him to practice. And this also means I always have to work evenings and often weekends, to make up the lost time because the work day is now even shorter than usual, so I also get no play time.

As a result of all this, I have virtually no time to actually mentor my students and work on the group’s papers, let alone read the literature. The fact that I get to do none of it is making me very, very cranky.

I find it mind-boggling that I have to fight hard to find the time to do research, because all the other stuff — most of which does not require me to seriously turn on my brain at all — easily fills 50+ hours per week. It should not be this hard to find the time to do the work that no one but me can do.

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.