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 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 2

* I am in one of the most famous and most beautiful cities in Europe. I have visited it before. It is a lovely European city. It is not unlike the city I was born in.

I find I have no desire to live here, ever. I find the buildings are old, the apartments small. Everything is very expensive.

It’s interesting how a place — the US, for me — can start to feel more like home by way of every other place becoming less and less appealing by comparison.
When I first moved to the US, I longed for home. Then for a while I imagined I could live in a more prosperous version of home, somewhere in the first-world countries of Europe.
Now I don’t long for my ancestral home, and I don’t envision myself anywhere in Europe.  I have been irreversibly and thoroughly Americanized.

But I admit, I would not mind coming here or elsewhere for a sabbatical, mostly to improve my German, which has become quite rusty. I used to be able to carry a conversation or watch TV in German; now I fear my limit is ordering food or getting transportation.

* It is very hot outside. As I seem to keep forgetting, air-conditioning is far from ubiquitous in Europe. My hotel had it, but the seminar room where I spent most of the two days didn’t and neither did the restaurants we went to. I have felt sticky non-stop. The airport is judiciously cooled — e.g. not in the toilet stalls, but yes around the sinks (because we really want that $hit to stink, don’t we?). The check-in and gate areas are air-conditioned, but still pretty warm by most US-airport standards.

* I had forgotten how numerous the immigrants from the Middle East are in Europe. I look at those poor fully draped and veiled women roasting in this heat and humidity, and then look at their male “guardians” in shorts and short-sleeved T-shirts… Inhumane.

* Having lived in the American Midwest for over a decade, I have access to very good and varied local beer; I am very particular about my beer. Yesterday’s trip to a Biergarten (in case it’s not obvious, it’s a beer garden, basically the restaurant part of a brewery) was disappointing beer-wise, but very fun company-wise.

* I gave a talk and spent two pretty intense days at a technical workshop with several people who work with a very niche technique, one that I also work with (among others). I really enjoy this aspect of science, where we really get together and openly share what we think the problems are, and we brainstorm ideas and talk about real solutions. We actually managed to tease out a few technical nitty-gritty details over food and drinks. I love when that happens. There may be some collaborative papers emerging from the workshop, which is what I would consider travel money well spent.

* The older I am, the more I enjoy talking about science. I think it has to do with me knowing more and, perhaps more importantly, with me believing I know a lot, having very specific opinions, and being confident about articulating and defending them.

* Whenever I think I am hot stuff, or when I think I am a worthless piece of turd, I should make myself fly somewhere, preferably far away and with a long layover. As much as I hate the hassle of travel and generally being on planes, I love airports and engaging in a favorite sport: people watching. So many folks, all different, all so important and yet so unimportant. It reminds me that I am just one puny human. I could vanish this instant and the world would keep spinning; no one except my immediate family would give a $hit. I personally spend too much time in my head, taking myself too seriously. Being reminded of my own irrelevance is strangely liberating.

* As has always been my experience, even when I was a student, graduate students magically become more productive when the PhD advisor leaves town. Sadly, this phenomenon does not take place when I am in town but ignore them. Thus far, I have received 2 revised drafts to look at while traveling and I will be Skyping with two students today and tomorrow evening.

* Off to board a flight to another European metropolis, where I am to give another talk and attend another conference. And I am very much looking forward to the excellent beer!

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? 

Sexist Logorrhea

Apparently, a septuagenarian Nobel laureate thinks women are a distraction in the lab and cry a lot; calls for gender-segregated labs. The Internet erupts.

Whatever. I am actually relieved every time something like this happens. I am relieved that occasionally someone is actually stupid enough to say out loud what many think and act according to anyway.

Over the past several years, I have been a witness of pretty serious discrimination of other women by people considerably younger than Hunt. These men would fight you to the death if you even hinted that they were sexist because of course they don’t think they are; yet, their actions speak differently.

  • We have enough women,” said in earnest by a colleague in a faculty meeting discussing hiring. Women make <20% of faculty.
  • L is not a real candidate,” said by a colleague about a female candidate. The colleague and I were on the recruitment  committee together, I know we ranked all candidates, top 20 were all stellar, L was ranked 3, and we interviewed 5. She is not a diversity candidate, she’s a highly qualified candidate who also happens to be female.
  • A few years back, some colleagues and I went through serious diversity training in preparation for serving on the faculty recruitment committee. I remember finding the training illuminating. That’s where I first found out about how women are expected to act communal and men agentic, and how women are penalized if they act insufficiently communal. I saw the examples of recommendation letters and the difference in the language people use for men and women, how letters for women always veer towards too personal, with comparatively less focus on achievement, excellence, competence, and with different adjectives used for women and men. The male colleagues went through the motions and, when it was all done, said it was all pointless bullshit and a waste of time. We all saw examples of those letters of recommendation; they completely shook my world, but apparently did nothing for my male colleagues. You truly can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.
  • At the university level, we reviewed three candidates from the same general field (different subfields) coming up for tenure. If you just looked at the number of publications and quality of journals where they appeared, the number of  citations, the number of grants, the woman was the best of the lot. But if you looked at external evaluation letters, you’d be appalled by the language. According to the letters, the two men were superstars in the making (not made yet, with writers bending over backwards to attribute lack of citations to the fact that the candidate is a visionary), while the woman’s achievement were downplayed, with statements to the effect that she must have come up with some of her most heavily cited findings by accident! It was disgusting. I read about these instances happening, but it was blatant and real and clear as day. These letters then led to the committee dissecting the woman’s record with a scalpel and a fair bit of skepticism; everything worthwhile she did had to be qualified, while the men were fine just on potential and the letters.  (You bet I was vocal about it.)
  • Being a member of the program committee for a conference in my field, it routinely happens that there are no women suggested for invited talks unless I suggest some. It’s amazing how I can think of 3-4 women easily, and the other 15 dudes together cannot think of single one.

That is not to say that there aren’t men who really and truly are the champions of women. They exist (thank you, guys!), but are definitely a minority. For instance, I have the good fortune that some of my department colleagues, including the chair, are really genuinely supportive of women,  really put their money where their mouth is: they advise female students and actively support female colleagues. However, I would say that less than 20% of men in my department are true diversity champions, who believe a diverse workplace is a better place for everyone. The rest, a vast majority, make allowances for exceptional specific women (“Of course, you are awesome! You are much better than other women!”) but do not see why there is a need for diversity; science is fine just the way it is! They consider all our “hysteria” about women in science to be tiresome political bullshit that has to be catered to when writing about broader impacts in NSF proposals. They will often say things such as “We hire the best candidate, not an affirmative action candidate!” To everyone who ever said that I want to say the following: it sounds like you have no freakin’ clue how it is to objectively evaluate candidates for anything very competitive. There are always MANY highly qualified candidates, any one of them would be a good choice. Now the question is how to pick 1 or some other small number from among these uniformly excellent men and women. I am disgusted to see that people think all of these few spots belong (!) to “real candidates,” i.e., men. The fact a woman is just as good as any of them still does not make her a real candidate in the eyes of some, even fairly junior colleagues with professional wives and daughters.

So I don’t understand the outrage that another sexist a$$hole suffers from the foot-in-mouth disease. Because, really, it’s not a big surprise. It’s just how things are.

In my experience, many men in the physical sciences, even among those who think very highly of their own enlightenment, don’t really think that science needs more diversity, but rather that’s it’s simply something women want and are very loud and annoying about and should be accommodated on occasion to stop the whining (or to snatch the rarely seen unicorn-female-superstar-real-candidate).  They consider all efforts to promote women as a nuisance that gets in the way of doing science as they are used to. My European colleagues can be a special brand of offender here, as they often see (and speak of) the quest for promotion of women as an American problem and not something relevant to where they live and work (this from a colleague who works on a large team of about 50, with a single woman, a student). It is very hard to change people’s minds when they think they are blind to sexism and that all they see is merit. Trying to convince them that much of the merit is really in the eye of the beholder would be positively quixotic.

Summer Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked Profs

This weekend I finally gave myself a permission to not work, as I had worked nearly non-stop through last weekend because of a deadline and ended up quite exhausted.

Last weekend, Middle Boy had his best friend over. We love the little boy and his family, and I know the mom pretty well. She is very cool, well traveled and educated, and overall open-minded and progressive; she works for the school district. I talked with her many times about what my academic job at our big university entails, how research never stops, the quest for grants, service, all that stuff. She always said she understood, and that she also had a sibling who was a social science professor.

When she came to pick up her boy last weekend, she asked what I was doing, as I had my laptop out amidst mountains of paper associated with the large centers proposals I was reviewing for a federal agency. I told her what my weekend had been and she was really shocked by me working over the weekend during the summer (not sure if it was the weekend, the summer, or both that was surprising).

As Cage the Elephant say, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked”

doubtless talking about university professors who don’t receive pay from the university over the summer, but work their butt off anyway. Professors might draw summer salary from grants, if they have managed to receive any given the ~10% funding rates. (By the way, CTE do a good job live, I heard them last year as the opening act to the Black Keys. They are touring, catch them if you can.)

Anyway, I was surprised and disappointed by the woman’s reaction. It’s not like I haven’t spent a lot of time already talking with her about my job, this should not have been a surprise at all. This incident leads me to believe that one of the following is true: a) I did a horrible job explaining, b) I explained just fine, but she didn’t understand, c) I explained just fine and she understood, but she didn’t believe me because of pre-existing notions as to what professors do, probably affected by whatever she perceives her sibling does.

This bothers me greatly, especially in the light of some recent conservative legislation. This woman has access to information from the horse’s mouth and she still does not understand what this job actually is. I am not saying it’s her fault, it could be my inability to convey what I do; still, she must know more than most people. If she is incredulous about me working weekends or summers  (by the way, her husband works weekends all the time), what chance do we have of people who don’t know any academics actually understanding what it is that we do? What people see are publicly available salaries, think that all we do is teach one course per semester and figure that’s 4-5 hours per week tops, and we even have tenure! That certainly sounds outrageous. Most people employed by companies work  long hours at lower salaries and with no job security. If I thought someone were getting away with a high salary, minimal work, and perfect job security, I might be livid, too. Moreover, people seem to believe their taxpayer money pays these outsize salaries of these lazy professors, whereas in reality only a small and ever-shrinking contribution comes from the state (presently 10-15% of the whole university budget is typical for state universities).

If Middle Boy’s friend’s mom doesn’t know what professors do, what chance do we have with the general populace? How are we supposed to convince people that professors are not lazy layabouts, that being a professor at a university doesn’t mean being an overpaid and largely idle version of a K-12 teacher? (No disrespect to K-12 teachers intended.) How can we get it into the heads of the public that we are not the enemy, that yes, our jobs involve teaching their kids, but on top that we conduct research, which in the sciences has many elements of running a small businesses: competing for funds, paying personnel, managing them, distributing the products (papers), but first giving between 1/3 and 1/2 of all the funds raised to the university in terms of overhead?

Americans are very hard-working people and have a great work ethic, which are some of the things that I really like about the society. But they hate intellectuals, much more than I could say for any country in Europe or Asia that I have familiarity with (I don’t have enough experience with Latin America, Africa, or Australia/Oceania). For instance, even in the rural areas in my home country, people would tell you that being a university professor is a distinguished vocation, alongside doctors and lawyers. Here in the US, doctors and lawyers are fine, as are corporate executives, but not professors. While I am sure few people actually know what it is that CEOs really do, they don’t seem to begrudge CEO salaries. But those shifty university professors? They are certainly overpaid, never mind the recent data on salaries at very-high research activity schools, or the breakdown of public versus private 4-year schools. It’s amazing that people don’t mind the outsize compensation and bonuses of certain individuals or people in certain careers, because those are somehow perceived well deserved or earned, but as soon as the public thinks it’s paying you through their taxes (no matter how small a percentage in reality), you are never considered to work enough to justify the investment. The distrust of intellectuals and of the government appear to go hand in hand, as the country gets ever more conservative.

I don’t know what it is that we can do to convince the public that we do an important job, that most of us would make considerably more in industry and that tenure is a way to attract talent, and that research at the US universities is an important economic engine [because we can’t speak of broadening people’s horizons (bad! blasphemy!) or instilling critical thinking skills]. We can’t say “Whatever, let people believe what they want,” because this public opinion is a base for squashing research funding. So we can’t stop trying to get through to the people around us about what we do and why it’s important. I just don’t know how to do it in a way that actually matters.


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.