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Hard Realities, Part 2

Tree Stories - Mon, 04/25/2011 - 08:59

The Hard Reality of Soft Money: Part 1

It is a love-hate relationship I have with the National Science Foundation (NSF). I love them when they accept my grant proposals and I hate them when they don’t. In fairness, the majority of the time my proposals have been rejected (and it is the majority of my proposals that have been rejected) I can clearly see the reasoning behind it, because for the most part the system works as it is supposed to. As I noted before it is a competitive business, and some really brilliant people are competing against me, and this number increases every year (in direct proportion to my decreasing success rate). There are times when I have gotten reviews back that make me think the reviewers had no idea what they were talking about and I completely disagree with their assessments, and other times where I felt I was personally attacked. I have also been mystified when I got funded for a proposal I was convinced was not my best effort, so it really works both ways. Most of the time I feel the system is fair and I accept when I haven’t been good enough to make the grade. That is the nature of the beast that is the world of science funding and I am happy to play by the rules of the game.

Recently I had two perplexing exchanges with NSF. In the first instance, we got reviews back on a proposal I was included on (not as the lead principal investigator (PI))  that got the highest recommendation from the panel for funding. The peer reviews were mostly excellent and our proposal landed in the top 15 percent of the proposals based on the panel rankings. Then the program director, having decided to fund the top 20 percent of proposals in that batch, rejected ours from the chosen few, in spite of the recommendation of the panel to fund our proposal based on peer review. I am sure he had his reasons for doing so, but these weren’t explained to us in any way that I am aware of. If I had been lead PI, I would have been spitting fire, but the lead PI calmly allowed the issue to die a quiet death, which was the correct and adult decision (“live to fight another day” and all of that), though I would have at least asked for an explanation.

The second issue was more perplexing, involving a proposal that I am the lead PI on. In this case the program director decided not to even send our proposal out for review because we didn’t format the biosketch for one of my foreign co-PIs exactly right (we omitted a section heading). To be fair there are clear guidelines for such formatting, but we weren’t terribly far off from what is required. It seemed patently unfair to be rejected for a very minor infraction, and not at all in keeping with the spirit of the rules. I worked so hard to get this proposal submitted on time that I felt compelled to complain and lobby the program to reconsider. To my utter surprise they did reconsider (the squeaky wheel and all of that), and my proposal is now at the mercy of the peer review process, but at least it has a fighting chance to sink or swim on its merits. I believe that this is a really solid proposal, cutting edge even, and I would hate to see it not even get into the ring, as it were, regardless of its fate once it gets there. I think this example illustrates that the spirit of the review system is alive and well, when you can make your case on a matter such as this, and the very overtaxed “powers that be” at NSF can actually be persuaded. The love end of my relationship was, at least until the next rejection, restored.

One of the comments to my last entry regarding this matter was by another blogger, Eli Rabbet, who wrote:

As a hard money person who reviews soft money grants over the last 20 years I have noticed an increase in the number of proposals and a decrease in proposal quality as the soft money folk chip themselves up into smaller and smaller pieces (seriously 3 percent on one proposal).  I have seen people chew themselves up as funding shrinks. Because you have to write more proposals, less time is spent doing science. I have remarked on this in my usual quiet way to a number of program managers.

Eli makes a good point, and I agree with him to a large extent. We do have to spread ourselves very thin, taking too few months per project and having to juggle several projects at a time, each with their own suite of administrative duties (and these duties increase in number every year). We spend less time “doing our science” than we would like to, and more time fulfilling an increasingly long list of administrative requirements attached to less money per project. But I still defend this system of science as perhaps the best terrible system we can come up with. If we received full support we might find the creative energy needed out of stark necessity, but few of us would complain about the increase in freedom to research without the constant anxiety about funding. As I said before, the system is by no means perfect. But it is the system we’ve got, and so far (knock wood) I have kept the lights on and the heat cranking.

More worrying to me than the system we are using, however, is the increasing anti-science clamor that is permeating our society. That is the biggest threat to getting good science results per dollar invested. We have always used our NSF to encourage the freest of thinking to take place. Instead of putting out strongly mission-driven calls for proposals, the NSF has always given miles of latitude for free thinking scientists to push the envelope of their respective fields. That is what put U.S. science at the forefront of global research, and it makes a compelling argument for increasing our commitment to science rather than decreasing it. Time will tell how far this trend continues, but we are all watching it closely. Soft money institutes like ours are finding it increasingly difficult to retain the brightest young scientists who understandably are going where the hard money is.

I have been terribly busy since my return from Asia two months ago, and this blog has been nearly mothballed during that time. But I have a few things I do want to write about, so for those who haven’t lost faith stay tuned.

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