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.

Undergraduate research offices: what makes one work well?


Many universities – of all conformations and sizes – have a special center or office dedicated to undergraduate research. It’s a nice idea.

On some campuses, they are tremendously helpful. On others, I’ve seen or heard that they’re more of a hindrance than a help. Some campuses don’t have one. That’s a good thing if the office would be unhelpful, or a bad thing if the nonexistent office would be successful.

The scopes of these undergraduate offices vary, depending on how well they’re funded, and what level of buy-in they have from the administration and faculty. I actually haven’t had the benefit of having the services of any one of these offices yet, though I’ve worked with colleagues at many universities who have talked to me about their experiences. (I also have mentored students from schools with these offices.)

On the whole, I’ve heard more complaints than praise, but considering that our species is wont to complain, I imagine that by the existence of praise, a lot of these offices are doing fine. A colleague of mine once got a great bottle of wine for just submitting a grant that included undergraduate research. She didn’t complain.

Here is a partial list of things that the office can do:

  • Track data and progress on undergraduate research projects
  • Provide support for undergraduates, with respect to writing, test preparation, workshops
  • Coordinate lecture series
  • Promote and facilitate grant-writing to support undergraduate research.
  • Facilitate and advertise selection of students applying for undergraduate research programs (REU, MBRS, IRES, RISE, McNair)
  • Provide support to PIs of grants involving undergraduate research
  • Support (financially and otherwise) faculty mentoring undergraduates
  • Coordinate an undergraduate research-related events (like a poster session)
  • Direct an program that funds undergraduate research projects with internal funds
  • Provide space for research students to gather
  • Provide administrative support for project coordination

Sometimes these offices are run out of, or in coordination with, the offices of sponsored programs on campus. sometimes they’re separate entities that are run with distinct budget lines. I think the latter might allow for more latitude for the center to focus on its mission. What is that mission, though?

Often, what these offices do is murky and there is disagreement about the best use of the resources of the offices. I think that these conflicts arise from fundamental differences in the purpose of undergraduate research on campuses. Sometimes, there is a disagreement about what constitutes research itself.

It is mostly established that undergraduate research enhances the educational enterprise, and coursework that includes genuine and novel inquiry results in better learning. Some administrators and faculty have this as a primary goal, as a way of increasing retention, decreasing time to graduation, and promoting “best practices.” Some, on the other hand, see undergraduate research as an enterprise to prepare students for graduate school, and as having inherent value regardless of its effect on other aspects of academic life on campus. Others see undergraduate research as a mechanism for conducting a research program, and if a the campus is full of undergraduates, then “undergraduate research” just means “research.” On some research campuses, the office might even protect undergraduates from being the serfs of their labs.

I don’t think we all can agree on a definition of undergraduate research, though such definitions do exist. I say that research means that original scholarship is being conducted. If students are involved in research projects that are not intended to make new discoveries, then these in fact are not research projects. They’re merely learning exercises.

Moreover, scholarship itself is only useful if shared with the academic community. If a student develops new knowledge but that knowledge isn’t disseminated to the community of researchers in that field, then the research project was not a success. In my view — and I recognize that this is a minority view on teaching campuses — if a student research project doesn’t eventually make it to press, then it is not clear if it was genuine research.  It was clearly research training. Keep in mind that pilots can go through stages of flight training without ever leaving the ground, and we go through earthquake safety training without having an earthquake.

So, are undergraduate research centers supposed to promote undergraduate research training, or undergraduate research itself? This is not idle discussion because it affects the decisions about how resources get allocated.

This distinction is tied to the heart of the notion of what happens on a teaching-centered institution. Is faculty research just there to keep the teaching instrument sharp, or are faculty expected to be active scholars? If it is the latter, then faculty are doing students a disservice if they’re not fully engaging them in opportunities for genuine research that are already taking place.

So how do you know if undergraduate research centers are successful? Many institutions use vague accounting, listing the number of students reported to participate in projects. More concretely, other metrics include the number of publications with undergraduate authors, the number of students employed to do research in the summer full-time and part-time during the academic year, or the long-term professional outcomes of the students. Others will count the number of dollars spent on student research; some administrators will be counting indirect cost recovery. The best metrics depend on the mission.

So, perhaps when building such an undergraduate research center, focusing on the mission is a critical starting point. You can’t get everyone to agree, but you need to clarify what the center is doing, and also why it is doing it. Consensus is always good, when possible.

If you have an undergraduate research center, could you remark on what you think works and doesn’t work? If you were in charge (or, if you are) what would you do if you could, and what would you not do?

A little pool of cash


It’s a little absurd, but this year our college gave us $300 each in “professional development” funds. There are a few restrictions – no travel, no salary or stipends or wages for anybody. No food, either.

This isn’t even really enough to buy basic supplies or reagents, and I’m covered in that department at the moment anyway. I could buy half of an iPad for the lab (which has been handy for online identifications). It would have been nice to take the lab out to a nice dinner.

I’ve got two thoughts so far. The first is to not spend it out of spite – it could be turned over to someone who needs $600. The second is just to buy a bunch of books that I’ve been wanting to read, some new and some old.  Suggestions? What would you do with $300 bucks burning in your pocket?