Getting and running a big site grant in a small institution: how collaborations fail


Here’s the message of the post in a single sentence:

You need open communication and collaboration to land and run a successful site grant, and petty concerns about sharing resources could mean that nobody gets anything.

Now here’s the rationale:

“Site grants” power research centers and student training programs. Research institutions are expected to have these big grants to make things run. These “site grants” support multiple faculty and students working together on a big project of some sort.

On a small teaching campus, having a site grant of any size has a proportionately large impact. For example, if a research university operates an NSF REU site (Research Experiences for Undergraduates), it would add a little substance and spice to business as normal. On a small teaching campus, though, an REU site could transform campus culture. It could fund a student or two in many labs and provide all kinds of ancillary support for participating faculty. It would be a big frickin’ deal.

My campus, at the moment, can’t run an REU site. We don’t have enough research active faculty to submit a credible proposal in any potential REU theme. This isn’t supposition, it’s an established fact, notwithstanding the unrealistically optimistic grant specialist that keeps suggesting it to us. (My first year on campus, I did put together a preliminary proposal for a similar program that no longer exists, the UMEB. The only reason we weren’t shot out of the water was because the grant didn’t stay afloat after it was assembled in drydock. Since that time, we’ve lost faculty who haven’t been replaced.)

Even though we can’t run an REU site, our campus actually runs a large number of other site grants. The majority of them are in education (including STEM education). There are also science site grants, including a couple NIH projects to support biomedical researchers in training, and grad school-bound students are supported by McNair and NSF-LSAMP programs. (I run a couple NSF-International Research Experiences for Students programs.) How do we we run these training programs if we don’t have the faculty? We farm the students out. For example, nearly all of the biomedical students are doing research in labs off campus in other institutions. We fund ’em and ship ’em off. This model does seem to work, to some extent, though the money from these grants then is not used to build our own laboratories or help our own scientists become successful. That is a drawback.

We could have a lot more big projects on campus, if it weren’t for one particular obstacle. That obstacle isn’t the limited number of faculty with biographical sketches that belong on a site grant. It’s the absolute absence of a collaborative attitude. It’s killed project after project, preventing them from getting to the submission stage.

I’ve seen so many grants get assembled without adequate involvement of the people who should be involved. And they’ve all either fallen apart, or are manifested in a suboptimal fashion. It’s maddening. I understand how it happens, and that’s exactly why it’s so maddening.

The people who control the money of these site grants have power that comes with allocating the budget. They can bring faculty on to the grant by giving them extra stipends, summer salary and reassigned time. They can fund your students, or choose to not fund your students. They can get access to space on campus that others can’t use. Also, the people with these grants have the ear of the administration, and since money begets money, this means that power begets even more influence.

Just like when people become rich they’re more likely to hate paying taxes, some faculty members in charge of grants start becoming stingy. Even worse, faculty members who are even thinking of being involved in grants get paranoid. They don’t want to talk about their plans for developing a grant. Any conversation even mentioning the grant should be “invitation only” (that is an actual quote, by the way). The thinking is, just like when you win the lottery and everybody becomes your best friend, then if you land a big grant then everyone’s going to nibble at you for a piece. That’s messed-up thinking.

Most people here writing grants do it behind closed doors, hush-hush, and if they decide to cut you in, it’s on a need-to-know basis.

I’ve seen this happen with four different projects in the last month. I was recently at a meeting to work on developing a proposal, and there was a side conversation referring to things to which I was not privy. When I asked, I was merely told, “it’s political.” Am I a collaborator or am I a little child?

Here’s another absurdity with which I was involved. A couple administrators and a few faculty members were discussing how to put together a particular proposal. The fact that we were all there to discuss the project was clearly a positive. It was clear that the person in charge had a clear vision for what the project was supposed to do, and her job was to bring us in line though she was open to hearing good ideas. After a while, a variety of specifics were discussed, a grantwriter was ready to go, and we were moving ahead. The next step: one of the administrators was to contact another person and inform him that he was going to be the PI.

Huh?!? That has to be an awkward conversation: “Hi there, Bob, so we met this afternoon to plan a big grant, we have a grantwriter doing it all, and we have the people to do the work on the project. It’s all set. And you’re PI. I know you don’t know anything about this, but that’s not a problem. Could you sign the paperwork?” This is what passes for collaboration ’round these parts.

Why are people doing these projects in the first place? Is it to get the job done the best way possible? If so, then shouldn’t the key personnel in the project be part of the conversation?

Here’s another illustrative anecdote: Last year, I was walking across campus and one of my administrators was showing around an off-campus colleague who was visiting for the day. I was walking alongside another faculty member. When she introduced the two of us, she didn’t say:

“This is Terry McGlynn, rainforest ant ecologist, and this is Horatio Wigglesworth, who works on apoptosis in naked mole rats.”

Instead, she said,

“Hi, this is Terry McGlynn, funded by NSF. This is Horatio Wigglesworth, funded by NIH.”

There was nary a mention of what we actually did. She communicated in a few words, what mattered to her: that we had grants. What we did with those grants was secondary. To her, the grant itself was what mattered, not the work that was empowered by the grant. This kind of thinking is not only petty, but it’s also wasteful because this mindset results in a focus on getting grants, rather than focusing on identifying funding for the projects that have the greatest need. The latter approach is the one that results in grants that are not only funded, but also successful.

Why do I choose to run the projects that I do? I have two big reasons. I love doing the research connected to them. And I’m committed to giving students the biggest and best opportunities I can create for them. That is clearly not a motivation for faculty cooking up these big projects and are being secretive. The reason they don’t want to talk about it isn’t because they fear the project will fail, but they fear that too many people will be part of its success. (Note that, even if you are successful in research and grantsmanship, that won’t help your baseline salary at all, as I’ve already addressed in a prior post.)

Here are some of the horrible reasons for getting grants that I see far too often:

  • Pay oneself extra stipends and summer salary (typically for not doing more work)
  • Be liberated from teaching
  • Enable one to spend less time on campus
  • Increase one’s power or prestige

These reasons are ones that can explain why there isn’t collaboration. If you’re running a project to keep things for yourself and your fiefdom, then to bring others in would just weaken your power while helping the students.

So, what’s the problem with ambition and wanting to be powerful and have influence? I’ll tell you the problem: it prevents reasonable people from actually doing their job to teach and help students grow. It prevents the projects from getting off the ground. If you’re in a lifeboat, you just can’t paddle in the direction you want to go. You need to communicate with the other people in the boat.

Territoriality around grants prevents conversations that bring in the best ideas, and also sometimes prevents the involvement of the most effective people who should be in on these projects.

Here’s another relevant anecdote from the grant silliness of the past month: A faculty member in education, who is operating one site grant at the moment, is now preparing for another one, involving science curricula and teacher preparation. On our campus, there’s one science faculty member that advises pre-service teachers on their science coursework, and is working with existing science education projects. It’s a no-brainer that this faculty member should be involved in developing this new science education grant. (It happens to be me.) Instead, of talking to me, the education faculty writing this grant hits up two of my department mates, who have absolutely no involvement in pre-service teacher advisement and curricula. She walks into their offices, and says, “I’ve written this grant, it’s all done. I’ll give you this amount of money if you give me a letter of support.”

Why did she want their letters of support, instead of talking to me, the guy who actually would be in a position to provide actual, genuine support instead of a mere letter? Because she didn’t want any of their help. She just wanted the letterhead. She wanted to buy them off to get the grant and have her own way without actually having them contribute to the project. Why didn’t she want any of us involved? Because our involvement would take time and money. It would involve synergies with other existing projects, but those aren’t under her control. It would actually improve the project, but that’s not what was important. Controlling the budget on her end, for her to spend it as she wishes, is what mattered.

I don’t know if she’ll get the grant or not. But what I do know is that the grant would be better if she talked to at least some of us before she wrote it. Why didn’t she want to talk to us while drafting it? Because we’d want a bigger piece than she was wiling to offer. Good for her, bad for the students.

Here’s a simple guiding principle: If you’re developing a project, you need to talk with all of the potential participants involved to not only gauge interest, but also to develop the best possible proposal.

If you do consult widely, then how do you keep it from growing out of control and having too many people demand a piece? That’s easy. It’s called leadership. That kind of leadership, though, just like that of Ernest Shackleton, means that you can’t elevate yourself on a pedestal, and you have to put the needs of those who you lead on the same par as your own needs, if not above your own needs. The PI with the most sway on our campus does exactly that, and it’s his collaborative attitude that puts students first is exactly the thing that’s made him so successful. It’s why I respect his work so much and why I always work with him when I have the opportunity. It’s what makes him so trustworthy and reliable, and also what makes his projects incredibly effective, or as they say, impactful.

Meanwhile, everyone else that can’t have a big enough piece of that particular pie is trying to build their own little walled fiefdom.

Perhaps because I study animals that live in social groups, I know that cooperation with others, even those with whom you have some conflict, leads to greater productivity for everybody. My fellow faculty members, for the most part, aren’t receptive to this lesson in animal behavior and game theory.

I hope that, on your campus, there’s a better spirit of collaboration.

Upon reading this post, the night before it came out, my spouse asked me, “Do you think that by writing about people not being team players, that you’re not being a team player?” That’s a really good point. I suppose that if the individuals in my anecdotes whom I do not name recognize themselves, then I won’t be on their team in any point in the near future. However, even if they never see this post, I still wouldn’t have been on their team regardless.

I wanted to write a post about how collaboration and cooperation can lead to better site grant proposals. Then, I realized that based on my recent experiences, that focusing on the negative makes my point quite well, because at a distance these stories are so absurd. They demonstrate how being secretive and exclusive about writing grants is absurd. For the record, the site grant of which I’m now a Co-PI was written in a highly collaborative manner, with all partners (including some who didn’t make the cut) in on the discussions from the very beginning. Building this project that way has helped us respond to unforeseen changes and challenges really well, and if we didn’t do the outreach at the beginning, it would have been not nearly as successful.

5 thoughts on “Getting and running a big site grant in a small institution: how collaborations fail

  1. This is a great post and I really think it’s quite the truth in my work environment too, that happens to be a small teaching faculty in Brazil, in the middle of nowhere Central North Brazil, Tocantins State. I sent your post to my master students that are trying to build teams on an interdisciplinary research project. Thanx

  2. Thanks for sharing! I think this phenomenon might be endemic to small institutions, with poor internal funding, where you can only really get anything done with external funds

  3. An addendum: So, today, I get an email asking me for my biosketch. To renew a grant that I’ve been a “mentor” for over 5 years, but yet to receive a student through the program. I said that “I’d like to be a collaborator in deed rather than just on paper.” This precipitates a phone call:

    The reply was, “So what do you decide, yes or no?”

    “I’d like to be involved in the project.”

    “So then you’ll send the biosketch?”

    “I’d like to be *involved.* How can I be genuinely involved?”

    “You can send us your biosketch and we’ll put you on the list.”

    “How does that get me involved in the project? I gave you my biosketch five years ago, have been ‘on the list’ and I haven’t been involved in the last five years.”

    and then the conversation becomes cyclical.

  4. Wow, that sounds hugely frustrating. I would have thought that people at teaching-intensive schools would be better about collaboration since it seems like one of the only ways to take best advantage of limited resources and to be productive in research.

    One of the things that attracted me to my teaching-intensive was the collegial and collaborative vibe I got (and which has since proven to be the case), at least from my dept. and/or people in other depts. who had similar research interests. Guess I should count myself as lucky that’s the case

  5. You would think. A quote from Benjamin Franklin about hanging separately comes to mind.

    My department, on the other hand, is beyond wonderful. I couldn’t ask for a better set of colleagues, though we are few in number.

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