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Fungible funding September 3, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science.
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I was reading a discussion the other day on funding sources when it occurred to me that I’ve made a big switch on the topic.  I used to think that industry funded research was *always* bad, *always* biased.

Nope.

I guess being in engineering has changed my view considerably.  A lot of engineering work is funded by industry, and this is a good thing.  First, it means that the research actually has a chance of getting used.  Second, it is helpful to the majority of researchers that are likely unable to get any funding from large governmental funding agencies.

In engineering, a lot of the conferences I’ve gone to have had large numbers of researchers from industry.  (In a couple sub-fields I’m involved in, *most* of the people come from industry.)  Those fields are the “too applied for NSF” type work that is still rather interesting and useful.  Without companies funding some of their own research, they probably wouldn’t be going anywhere.

Despite my great appreciation of the system we have for government funding, it is still very limited.  And even when things are funded, I’m not sure how many of these concepts actually make it to industry.

Now, looking at science from this engineering-informed background, I’m not as suspicious about industry-funded projects.  Admittedly, science has a different approach than engineering, but I wonder how many areas are being underfunded.  There are far more good ideas and questions to be answered than funding available.  Is it better to let a question sit unanswered or to try to work with an industry partner to do some type of study?  Just about every university will have a conflict-of-interest policy.  While these aren’t bulletproof, I would assume they’re going to hit some of the basics.  And maybe, just maybe, researchers really want to find the answers to their questions no matter how they get the funding.

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t be skeptical when research is funded by industry…but neither should we just write it off as biased.

Because you’re worth it December 16, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, grad school, research, writing.
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I’ve gotten behind on blog reading, but I found a post by FSP from a couple weeks ago asking if grad students know what they’re worth.

I have a reasonably good idea of how much I cost as a grad student.  I knew, at a minimum, I could throw my paycheck and tuition together.  Also, after writing several proposals of my own, this has come to my attention once or twice.  On one of my most recent proposals, I had a collaborator from a completely different field, and he needed a grad student to complete his research.  I was rather stunned that this non-STEM grad student would make nearly half what a grad student in my field (well, either of them) typically makes.  I’m glad I didn’t go into that particular field.

I am also aware that most STEM grad students are also cheap if you look at how much they could make going into industry rather than grad school.  Let’s face it: tuition and a paycheck typically still doesn’t add up to a full-time paycheck + benefits + taxes…at least in one of my fields.  (I’ll add that I’m not counting expenses for equipment use because, unless the student wrote the grant and is running the project, that’s the cost of running a project and not with having a student.  The PI would still have that expense if s/he were performing the research him- or herself.)  If money is the only thing you’re concerned about, how much you cost in grad school can be a bit disheartening when compared to your worth.  On the other hand, knowing how much a PI typically gets for grants, the student is likely one of the more expensive items on the budget.

It surprises me, however, that this isn’t something most PIs discuss up front with their grad students.  I understand that most people don’t get the opportunity to put together a proposal in grad school.  It took me a while to get that because my husband, upon getting approval for his PhD project from his grad committee, sat down with his advisor and wrote it up for NSF.  That was something he did even before he got deeply into his research.  I had the erroneous impression that this was something pretty much everyone did on their way to getting a PhD.  I have found out since then that this scenario may have been a somewhat unique case.

In reading the blogosphere over the past few years, I have frequently seen comments by professors about their students not understanding how expensive they are.  It makes me wonder if some of that irritation is due to a lack of communication and would be alleviated by sitting down with the student and walking them through the process of writing a proposal and budget.  Perhaps it’s naive, but I’m inclined to think it would help the student better understand the constraints, particularly financial, that their advisor may have.

Your name in lights! October 28, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, research, work.
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Having an unusual name, I always felt unfortunate.  All those cheap little do-dads they sell that have people’s names on them?  I never got one.  Having a rather rare name means few things ever show up with my name on it.  On one occasion, I think my parents felt guilty about this and had some guy at the state fair carve out my name on a wooden key chain.  I have to admit that was pretty cool, but sadly the key chain broke after a couple years.

All of that is okay, though, because today made up for that.

I was recently awarded a small amount of money for a project, but the really cool part was that I was the PI on the project.  I got the final paperwork from the financial people at the university today.  When I opened it up and was ecstatic to see the following:

Principal Investigator(s): Cherish

I would rather have my name there than on any key chain (except for the one my parents got for me).

(As an aside, I do have to admit that seeing it in the Star Wars font is pretty darn cool, too.)

Star_wars_cherish

Academic freedom: “I’ve got no strings to hold me down” September 14, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science.
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It’s no secret that I can’t stand the word “novel” when used to describe research.  (I talked about that here.)  Therefore, I was quite interested when I saw, in one of my newsfeeds, an article titled, “Academic spin: How to dodge & weave past research exaggeration.”  The post is about a discussion that biomedical journal editors at a conference had regarding some of the items that are being published and how to avoid hype and conflict of interest.  In general, the topic was interesting, but I had to pause at this paragraph:

Later, we heard from Serina Stratton that out of 313 trials studied, 36 required sponsor/manufacturer approval for text or publication and 6 had gag orders. Leading to some inevitable questions: why aren’t all academic institutions protecting researchers and trial participants from industry restrictions on academic freedom – and why aren’t potential participants being warned about this before they agree to be in a trial?

I’m afraid this may sound a bit judgmental, but I felt like the question about academic institutions protecting researchers and participants was a bit naive.

It is my observation that universities are very much gearing operations toward a business model and are less concerned about education.  (I’m not passing judgement, by the way…just stating my observation.)  Bringing in research money is a huge component of creating a successful university in the business model, and this is reinforced by things like the Carnegie rankings.  The level of research effort is one of those criterion for the rankings, and that is measured not in hours or publications but in research dollars.  (The methodology for these rankings is here.)  Being a RU/VH (research university, very high) is something nearly every university aspires to.  (It was a huge deal when my own university joined the ranks…despite the fact that no one outside the university seemed to realize it.)

But how does one become a tier 1 school when federal budgets are shrinking?  You have to fill the gap somewhere, and a lot of places do that by doing contract research for industry.  Given the choice between research funding and the prestige that goes with it versus academic freedom, it seems pretty obvious that the whole academic freedom issue is rather inconvenient.  The rankings don’t look at academic freedom, they’re looking at research expenditures.  Obviously, given the choice, the university is going to catapult whatever prevents receiving funding.

If you’re doing contract research for industry, there is almost always some limitation on academic freedom.  Companies are not going to fund research that doesn’t generate proprietary information.  Heck, a lot of them won’t fund research if they think the research might leak out and make them look bad.  Trade secrets are the norm in industry, and the choice researchers make when they work with industry is the loss of academic freedom.  This is a choice that is being pushed by the universities in general, however, because, like most businesses, decisions revolve around the bottom line.  Because of that, researchers understand that tenure, and for those on soft money, continuing employment, is heavily dependent on funding.  There are few researchers who are going to turn their nose up at a major funding source, even if that funding comes with some pretty serious strings attached.

Between a rock and a soft (money) place May 20, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science.
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I’ve been cogitating on another comment that showed up on a proposal review.  The general complaint was that we were funding too many staff and not enough students.

I could see this…except for the fact that all but one of the people involved is on soft money.  This proposal was already being trimmed left and right to make it fit into budget constraints, and our choice was to fund 1 or 2 months for each of these five staff (including myself), all of whom are in different disciplines and contributed to the development of the project concept and writing of the proposal…or I can fund another grad student for a year.  Of course, if I had no facilities costs to worry about…

I suspect this is a drawback of doing interdisciplinary research: you need expertise in a variety of fields, and so it may look like a situation of “too many managers, not enough peons.”  On future proposals of this nature, I’ll have to make the point that each of those people is essential and none can be replaced by a grad student.

It’s also leaving me wondering if there is something that explicitly needs to be said about funding arrangements.  For most professors in engineering or science, I imagine they have 9 mos of salary paid, so they often only take a couple weeks to a couple months of summer salary under their grants.  Also, most of them have teaching duties and therefore need to have grad students to do most of the work.  I imagine the reviewers may assume that people applying for funds are probably working under a similar arrangement where they have a base salary and anything coming from the proposal is ‘extra’.

But what about people who are in a situation like I am?  I’m in a soft-money position and I have no teaching obligations (unless I choose to).  Given the choice, I’d rather have a couple months more salary than hire more grad students (assuming there are any available, which is not always true).  If I only get one month salary from a winning proposal and my funding rate is 10% (and I don’t know if it is yet as I’ve only written about half a dozen proposals), then I have to write about 120 proposals to fund myself for a year.  Even if I was physically capable of doing that (I’d like to meet someone who is), I doubt the proposals would be of the quality that would get funded, anyway.

Admittedly, different funding agencies will have different expectations…but not radically so.  Maybe my readers are more knowledgeable about I am on these points. If so, I’d appreciate it if someone would enlighten me.

Permanent position April 24, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, research, science.
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The other day, I was talking with a professor who was asking about my employment situation.  After clarifying where I was at, he said, “But your husband has a permanent position, right?”

“Permanent insofar as he’s on soft money, too.”

One thing that’s become fairly obvious is that there has been a bit of confusion about our research center.  A lot of people don’t realize we run entirely on soft money, which is a very uncomfortable situation to be in.  It’s even more uncomfortable when both members of a couple are in that situation.

I recently read this article about the money trail in academia, and it got me thinking: what would happen if PIs were in the same situation as some of the rest of us.  That is, what if they not only had no tenure, but also had to bring in their own salary?  (I say this is the realization that, in some places, this is the case.)

I have a lot of thoughts on what may happen, but I’m going to put them in a separate post.  In fact, by the time this post has been published, I will already have my post written so as to be untainted by potential comments.  In the meantime, however, I’m curious what you think.  Do you think this sort of system would help or hurt academia?  Encourage or discourage competition, quality, efficiency?  Do you think this would motivate the system to change or would it just be more of the same?

Against all odds January 6, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science.
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I was speaking with a colleague who mentioned that he was happy the latest defense bill had been passed and signed as it meant there would be some money behind a couple funding announcements he’d to which he’d submitted white papers

Of course, he noted, he was unlikely to get them.  One of the calls had received over 1500 white papers…for something like 10 awards.  That meant less than a 1 percent chance of receiving anything.  If he’d had the ability to submit 5 white papers, this would have resulted in about a 3% chance of receiving something.  Had he known that there were that many applicants, he might not have bothered.

I have been shaking my head ever since this conversation.  You know what will happen with these awards: likely they will all be given to top 20 schools.  And yet, any school that is not in the top 20 will still be evaluating faculty based on how much money they’re bringing in and papers.

When you pretty much have no chance of getting funding, how can that be fair?  It’s not just an individual that brings in the funding: a lot of it also has to do with the reputation of the school and the facilities available.  It is not strictly a function of an individual, yet the individual is the one held accountable for all factors.

I just don’t know how a person is not supposed to be intimidated (or even just plain scared) when hearing these types of numbers.

Advisor Red Flags: choosing your project May 26, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, grad school, research, science.
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I’ve been thinking about student/advisor interactions this week, and I started wondering if I should list some of the red flags I’ve seen over time.  These are the little comments or interactions that I’ve observed.  I would like to say that these are things you should watch out for when choosing a grad advisor, but, sadly, they may not show up until you’re hooked on to a particular advisor.

Today’s red flag is what to be afraid of when approaching a grad advisor about a potential dissertation project.  I admit that, for some people, this isn’t going to qualify: some people’s advisors choose their projects for them.  However, there are some advisors who feel that their students should choose their own projects.  I generally believe this is a good thing, but it can lead to problems if you don’t choose the ‘right’ project.

You see, the frustrating thing is that some advisors say they want their students to choose their own project, but they won’t give the student any guidelines for the project.  No ideas of where to look, no feeling for what the advisor is comfortable advising.  And, rather than trying to flesh out these details if they aren’t comfortable with the idea you’ve developed, you get one of the following responses:

1 – I don’t have funding for that.

2 – I don’t think that’s a good idea.  *silence*

3 – (sometimes) This would be a better project.

One and two are bad…three depends.  The first response means: I have no interest in your project, and I’m not going to take the time to show you how to write a grant.  (Before you say the advisor may not have money, there is a better response.  Read to the end.)  If you’re planning on becoming an academic, this is a sign your advisor isn’t interested in your research and isn’t going to be a good mentor, either.  The second one means the advisor may let you do the project, but they probably won’t be giving you much in the way of constructive feedback as the project progresses.  They may not outright forbid you to do that, but they are going to be rather passive aggressive about helping you along.

The third comment is neutral.  It may be good or it may be bad, depending on how your advisor works with you.  If it’s something related to what you’re interested in but is a bit more cutting edge, it may be great.  If it’s a pet project the advisor wants done, run away.  I’ve seen both scenarios.  The slight redirection worked out well.  The other one happened to a friend who spent two years working on the project before it became obvious that nothing was going to ever come of it.  He put a significant amount of effort into it, didn’t really enjoy the research, and ended up paperless at the end.  He finally went in and blew up at his advisor, who let him finish up his original project and finally graduate.  (Fortunately, he wasn’t looking at a job in academia or he may have had a tough time after graduation with lack of papers.)

So what are good responses?  There are two responses that let you know you’ve hit the jackpot.

1 – I think that’s a good idea (and maybe, “although we want to try to look at it from this perspective”).

2 – Let’s see if we can get some funding to do that.

Either one of these is a good sign.  It means they will (hopefully) be supportive by providing feedback.  The second is even better, as it means the advisor is (hopefully) willing to show you the ropes and provide some mentoring opportunities.

I know the common advice on grad school is to know what you want to do before you go in.  If you are that far ahead of the game, then being able to pitch your idea before you start is an excellent way to gauge how an advisor feels about an area of research.  The downside is that you may really click with an advisor who may not be into a particular field of research.  If you’re stuck on that area, you obviously don’t want to work with them, but if you find someone who is good to work with, you might be able to find something they’d be okay with.  Sounding like you’re too focused may make them think you wouldn’t be interested in working with them.  Being too focused and pitching ideas can have its drawbacks, especially if that person isn’t good about keeping people informed about their current research interests.

If you’re already with an advisor, it’s pretty important to make sure early on that you can communicate with them and that they’re giving you at least a little guidance in choosing your project.  If they aren’t, that can also be a red flag.

What responses have you seen to project ideas and were they positive or were they red flags?

The easiest funding I’ll ever get January 4, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, research.
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I’ve been getting more and more frustrated as time goes on. You see, in addition to working on a dissertation, working half-time, and having a family and too many hobbies, I’ve been getting ideas for research I’d like to do. I am compiling a list. I pretty much tripled the size of the list last year, with only one thing knocked off.

It turns out that this was one of the most recent ideas, something I’d been working on in my head for a couple months after beginning a literature search. It was something I was expecting someone else to have figured out, so I was very surprised when I completed the lit search with nothing like the idea. At some point, I mentioned this to a co-worker. He thought it was an awesome idea. So I went to talk to my boss. I told him I had a thought related to one of the projects I was working on, and explained what it was.

I was very lucky. It turned out that there is another project, relatively low-priority, that had some funding, and what I wanted to do lined up perfectly with the goals of the project. I was bequeathed with five weeks of salary to work on the project.

I am truly spoiled. I can’t imagine that I will ever again be in a position where I can say, “I have an idea,” without much to back it up and be given money and resources to work on it.

Now I just hope it turns out like I want it to.

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