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ROI on NSF proposals October 23, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research.
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I had a conversation with my supervisor the other morning.  I am currently writing a proposal to NSF, and I said I may have enough to get a second one together, too.  His response was, “Go ahead, if you think it’s worth the effort.”

I decided to go forward with the second one, but it’s been bothering me because, when you look at it, it’s really NOT worth the effort.  If you get it, it’ll seem like all the time in the world was worth it.  But in reality, not so much.

Not that I have any economic savvy, but my sense is that going after more than one NSF proposal isn’t worth it at all.  Going after one is only worth it if you think you have a spectacular chance.

A big part of the problem is that one can get, at most, 2 months salary from NSF.  That means that if I get one proposal funded, I get 2 months of salary.  If I get more than one funded, I still only get 2 months…not for each project, this is total.

Being on soft money, it seems like NSF is definitely not the way to go.

However, there are intangible benefits in the highly unlikely chance (probably <10%) that I were to get a proposal funded.  Specifically, having some funding under one’s belt makes one far more attractive in terms of hiring into a spot that pays more than two months salary.  If that’s the only criteria, then it appears it’s worth it to go after as many as possible.

Realistically, though, there’s probably more important factors involved, like my desire to sleep and eat.  It’s an optimization problem, and two proposals is my limit.  I simply can’t focus on more than that (and I tried last year).  By focusing on more than one, I’m probably decreasing my odds of getting either because of the need to divide my time.  Of course, I’m already dividing my time between getting other work done, getting my thesis done, teaching, and having a family (and currently not doing the best job of that).  What’s another proposal when you’re already overwhelmed, right?

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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?

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