Last year, I served on a couple NSF panels*, and I’d like to share some thoughts. Instead of a coherent narrative, I’ll just give a bulleted set of observations and ideas.
A lot of federal agencies want to enhance the research environment at primarily undergraduate institutions and minority-serving institutions. Not all efforts hit the mark.
Consider the summer faculty research internships that a variety of agencies run.
I’m about to make some statements that I think should be obvious. In fact, everything I say in this post about travel awards will probably be obvious, but I feel moved to write about it since these obviously bad travel awards exist.
Grad students are typically on very tight budgets.
Grad students are expected to attend and present their work at conferences (usually at least one per year).
Departments or schools often have funds available (as conference travel grants or similar) to students to help cover the costs of attending conferences, which is good.
Some of these grants require students to wait until after the conference is over and include all receipts for their expenses before they can apply, which is bad.
This post grows out of a conversation I was having about how scientists purchase supplies and equipment at smaller institutions. It would be helpful if you could leave comments with information and experiences you have.
We should have double blind grant reviews. I made this argument a couple weeks ago, which was met with general agreement. Except for one thing, which I now address.
Some readers said that double-blind reviews can’t work, or are inadvisable, because of the need to evaluate the PI’s track record. I disagree with my whole heart. I think we can make it work. If our community is going to make progress on diversity and equity like we keep trying to do, then we have to make it work.
We can’t just put up our hands and say, “We need to keep it the same because the alternative won’t work” because the status quo is clearly biased in a way that continues to damage our community.
In some academic fields, double-blind reviews of manuscripts for peer-reviewed publication is the norm. It’s no surprise that people who study human behavior use double-blind review. They must be on to something that most of us in the “hard” sciences haven’t picked up yet.
In the last few months, something has been on my mind. I’ve brought up the topic a few times, with some research scientists who hold tenured faculty positions. It would go along these lines:
I’m thinking of funding all of my research out of my salary. If I imagine a scenario in which…
- I take a 20% cut in salary
- I get that money in research support
- I don’t spend any more time writing grants
… it just makes me happy.
Every time I’ve brought it up, this was the response.
“I’ve been thinking about doing this, too.”
I was pretty much amazed. I thought it was just me.
I’m working on a couple biggish grants at over the next couple months. I’m doing something that I haven’t done before, at least not as a PI. I’m working with grantwriters, under the support of my university. These are for grants to support a bunch of people doing a variety of things, with many organizational components that are only tangentially connected to the science.
The US National Science Foundation has changed a rule for their Graduate Fellowships. As of next year, grad students can only make one attempt at landing a graduate fellowship, which is intended to increase the proportion of awards going to undergraduates.
When a child is raised, we provide them with a home, food, education, love and encouragement. Within a couple decades, give or take, the kid grows up and is expected to care for itself.
You can’t really expect the same of federally funded ventures.
Yes, sometimes research and education ventures support themselves after the funding runs out. But it doesn’t often work like that. Organizations are not people. (Even if Mitt Romney and the Supreme Court attempt to claim otherwise.)
If an agency wants something, then they can fund it. But when they stop funding it, then they’re saying that they don’t want it anymore. But it’s a grandiose hope that a funded venture can somehow exist in perpetuity because it was funded for a while.
I was just about to prepare a blog post about Freedom of Information Act requests and federal grants, when I got this interesting piece of email:
I am a Program Advisor for [redacted]. One of my responsibilities is to locate funded proposals upon the request of our members who are primarily sponsored programs officers.
I am writing to request a copy of your NSF IRES funded proposal; Fire, Carbon and Climate Change in Australia. A [redacted] member from [redacted] would like to review a copy of this in preparation for a future submission.
I do understand that this request can be made through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but that is a lengthy process. [Redacted] Program Advisors always prefer to contact funded PIs directly. Please contact me with any questions and/or concerns.
Thank you in advance for considering this request. I hope to hear from you soon!
So, what did I do? Obviously, I’ve written a blog post about it. I did not reply to the email. If I did reply, this is what I’d write:
Here’s an idea for a new way to fund science: We can just create websites about our projects, and then ask taxpayers to vote for competing research proposals, based on which ones they see on social media.
I didn’t say it was a good idea. This is, essentially, what crowdfunding is.
Spring is springing in Sweden and I’m finally out from under my grant writing load. It is pretty easy to complain about writing grants and I am not innocent in this respect. But it is also an opportunity to explore new ideas and topics. This year I decided to try at the more applied government funding agency which I haven’t attempted before.
I generally do basic science. Sure some of my research might one day shed light on a practical problem but I’m in it trying to understand the world around me. So in previous years I haven’t felt my research fit with the more applied funding sources and didn’t want to jam a square peg into a round hole as it were. If I don’t see a real way that my research fits into a funding agencies goals then I didn’t see the point of sending something there. But this year was different because I started thinking about research questions that interested and excited me and were directly relevant to a more applied grant.
So here’s the steps that have lead me to thinking about a new field and exploring the possibility for grant funding. To begin, last year we bought our first house. I have always wanted to have my own garden and it is a true delight. We moved in mid-summer so we didn’t change so much last year but I was actively adding bee-friendly plants and pondering how to get rid of more grass. The former owners left us with a number of lovely flowerbeds that are starting their spring routine now but there is still an abundance of lawn. At the same time as I was contemplating increasing diversity in our backyard, I was also looking for a system to study here in Sweden. I want to work with nectar-rewarding flowers and was looking around for possibilities.
I started noticing fireweed popping up here and there in my travels. I knew the plant from living and working in North America (it is the study system of my master’s committee member, Brian Husband) and a fair amount is known about its nectar production. Perfect. But when I was looking and asking around for potential locations for populations, I wasn’t finding any local large populations. Instead I was seeing patches in and around the towns I live and work. This got me to thinking about the ecology of these urban dwellers. How does natural selection on floral traits work in an urban context? There are a number of flowering plants that thrive and reproduce in urban environments and this got me thinking about all the same kinds of questions I usually apply to ‘wild’ populations.
I causally started looking into the literature to see what was known about flowers and plant-pollinator interactions in urban landscapes. As I read, I discovered that there is a fair amount known about the ecology of these interactions (hence ‘urban ecology’ as a field of study) but much less is understood about how urbanization affects evolution. So I had fun exploring a new body of literature and saw a niche where my skill set could provide some answers.
I’m not sure that I’ll convince the funding agency to give me the money to do so but I have convinced myself that urban evolutionary ecology is a topic I’d like to explore further. I have some pilot projects planned for this year and I’ll see where they lead. I also have another grant application exploring the more basic questions of evolution of signals and reward in fireweed, so in some ways the funding gods will decide which way my research focus goes for the next few years. One of the outcomes for me is that I am more seriously thinking that applying for grants can be the motivation for thinking in new ways or on new topics. Maybe a little desperation (for funding, the next position, etc) can be a good thing and maybe for me I can find some of the answers in my own backyard. For now I’m happy that major grant writing can be set aside for a bit and I can enjoy the spring.
One of the great things about being on a small campus is that I have lots of opportunities to interact with colleagues in different departments and colleges. One positive side effect of being sucked into university-level obligations is that you get to know people you otherwise wouldn’t interact with.
- Over the years, I’ve observed some huge differences differences between the research cultures of the sciences and the humanities. Most of these things are obvious, I realize. Understanding these differences can help bridge cultural gaps.
- In the sciences, journal articles are the primary metric of productivity and success. In the humanities, it’s books. Scientists can write books, and humanities people can write journal articles, but they’re not as important.
- In many humanities fields, giving a paper at a conference involves actually giving a paper. Standing at a podium and reading, page after page after page. Science talks are far more informal.
- Research in the sciences is highly collaborative. Many humanities scholars work solitarily.
- Student mentorship happens everywhere. In the sciences, students often adopt a piece of a larger lab project, whereas in the humanities more often students work on entirely separate questions from their mentors. On average, science professors take on a greater number of student researchers than in the humanities.
- Scientists are often expected to fund their research programs with external grants. Humanities researchers aren’t necessarily expected to bring in outside funds in order to be perceived as successful, as long as they create the research products in the end.
- What constitutes a huge grant in the humanities is a small grant in the sciences. An award of $50,000 from the NEH or NEA is a massive success and a windfall, whereas in the sciences this is useful money but not even close to a “big.”
- Scientists can get big pools of money to start up their labs. In the humanities, you get moving expenses, a computer, maybe some reassigned time and maybe a little bit more.
- In the humanities, receiving a PhD from a “top 10 program” in the field is critical for professional success. Program prestige matters in the sciences, but not as much. (I couldn’t even tell you what the rankings are in ecology/evolution.)
- The academic job market is way more messed up in the humanities. Here are two contributing factors: First, the degree of adjunctification is higher outside the sciences because tenure-line science faculty are more likely to bring in overhead to cover salary costs. Second, the job market for research scientists is more robust than for academic (say) historians. In the humanities, it’s more challenging to parlay a PhD into a salaried academic position outside a university.
- All worthwhile doctoral programs in the sciences fund the students, so tuition and living expenses aren’t covered by loans. Graduate students in the sciences are paid to teach and do research, albeit poorly. In the humanities, PhD recipients often emerge with substantial debt.
- Scientists need good library access to get current articles. However, physical access to great libraries is far more important in the humanities, as original papers and actual books remains important for research. The physical location of an institution, relative to an impressive library, is important for the humanities scholar.
- Humanities scholars use the phrase “digital humanities,” and it means something to them.
- Science professors are less likely to use elbow patches on their tweed jackets, but professors in the humanities are more likely to smoke a pipe.
Feel free to make new contributions, or disabuse me of any mistaken notions, in the comments.
The PECASE awards from NSF were announced as a Christmas present for 19 scientists.
These Presidential Early Career Awardees are picked from the cream of the crop of the CAREER awards. The CAREER award emphasizes an integrated research and teaching career development plan. Hearty congratulations to all recipients! This should make the holiday even nicer.
This year’s recipients of NSF PECASE awards work at the following institutions. Undergraduate institutions are in bold.
Univ. Puerto Rico at Cayey (classification here)
Selection for this award is based on two important criteria: 1) innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology that is relevant to the mission of the sponsoring organization or agency, and 2) community service demonstrated through scientific leadership, education or community outreach.
This year, if you round up, then 11% of these PECASE awards from via NSF went to scientists at primarily undergraduate institutions. If you browse the institutions with CAREER awardees, it’s clear that this nonrandom subset has a bias against the awardees from teaching institutions. There are far more than 11% CAREER awardees from teaching institutions.
Is this bias based on merit? That’s an interesting question. How is merit quantified by NSF when picking PECASE awards from among the CAREER awards? I have no idea how to answer that question.
I don’t find any of this surprising, but thought that I should put this fact out there. Those of you are applying for CAREERs from teaching institutions have a good shot at getting one, but, well, don’t make the mistake of thinking you have a fair shot at the PECASE. For the two of you who cracked that very hard nut this year, congratulations!
Jack-of-all-Trades, Master of Nothing
Recently a topic near and dear to my heart came up on Twitter. Allison Barner (@algaebarnacle) was live-tweeting from the Western Society of Naturalists meeting, and posted the following tweet:
This tweet caught my attention, because it touched on an issue that caused some anxiety for me as I completed my doctoral degree. At the time, I thought my graduate school training was too broad, straddling several disciplines (ecology, phycology and microbiology) across very different systems (lakes vs. wastewater lagoons). Some may view this is a strength, bringing to mind the classical view of what a Doctor of Philosophy should be. Yet at the time I was completing my Ph.D. (circa 2002), I suspected that my skill-set was viewed as old-fashioned, and was being supplanted by the next-wave of sexy techniques. I also felt like I knew a little about a lot of things, but an expert in nothing. Sound familiar? I attempted to rectify this by choosing to do my first post-doc in a lab where I could learn a sexy technique (i.e., applying molecular methods in phylogeny and diversity assessment). Becoming adept at a special skill had to be the right move because several of my peers were getting faculty positions based on their “special skills”. You’re a quantitative ecologist, we’ll hire you! You use the latest molecular technique, we’ll hire you! It seemed that if you had a specific, timely skill-set, you were highly marketable. The message was that Jack-of-all-Trades (JOAT) need not apply.
Still, I wasn’t personally satisfied with just learning the latest sexy tools. When an opportunity came up to do something completely different for my next post-doc, I jumped at the chance. Not only would I get to work in a new system (rivers of the Canadian Rockies), but learn more about theoretical ecology. Here I was expanding my academic repertoire yet again to the detriment of specialization. One could blame my lengthy sojourn as a post-doc (5.5 years) on not having an obvious niche research area. Nonetheless, my academic breadth made it possible to apply to a broad swath of jobs, and end up on interview short-lists. Based on some feedback though, it was apparent that search committees either found it difficult to pigeon-hole my research area, or didn’t think I quite fit the specialization they were looking for.
I was very fortunate to be hired by a new university in Canada that didn’t have the luxury of hiring specialists. They needed someone who could teach a broad selection of biology courses, as well as have an applied research angle to fulfill their STEM mandate. This was an extremely rare kind of faculty hire at a Canadian research university. In the United States, this is apparently the typical hiring emphasis for small, teaching-focused universities as vouched by Terry McGlynn (@hormiga) on Twitter:
Although I breathed a sigh of relief upon securing a tenure-track faculty position, I then had to fret about the views of research-funding committees. I know several colleagues who were denied funding, in part, because they could not convince the reviewers they were expert enough. To add to my angst, the Great Recession had begun and the current government was slashing and burning research funding. Ironically, it was these dire funding circumstances that showcased the strengths of being an academic JOAT. I quickly discovered that I could access a broader pool of funding sources compared to my specialist colleagues. I secured grants in ecology, conservation, and biotechnology. Now one could argue this approach allows funding agencies to direct your research program (i.e., tail wagging the dog), which is true to some extent. Ultimately, the researcher has to decide to what degree they will chase money this way, and perhaps only use this funding model during the lean years. In my mind, if it can keep your lab running and let you and your students continue to do science, it certainly has its merits.
So admittedly up to this point, I have provided a narrative that asserts my credentials as a card-carrying JOAT. What does that mean exactly? Am I really a Master of Nothing? The very nature of grad school is to become a specialist at something, at least compared to the general population. Along the way, grad students and post-docs acquire specialized skills in their fields, some more than others. Serendipitously, I became a leading expert on Didymosphenia geminata (aka “Didymo” or “rock snot”) during my second post-doc, and will unabashedly credit D. geminata for saving my career (a blog entry for another day). Does this mean I lose the right to claim the JOAT label at all?
Brett Favaro (@brettfavaro) sums it up nicely by stating:
Brett cites an interesting opinion piece by Parsons (2012) in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences that certainly extolls the virtues of a broad skill-set in an interdisciplinary field like Conservation. However, it is not enough to know about a lot of things, but to also have a deep understanding of them too. Thus, one needs to have a complement of specialized skills, perhaps at the “expert-lite” level and not necessarily “leading-expert” level. Would you accept your oncologist or cardiologist being “expert-lite” in your treatment options? Probably not, but I think this approach lends itself to disciplines such as ecology and environmental science, where a broad and somewhat deep skill-set can be an asset in research collaboration and communication.
Offering an intriguing new layer to this discussion on the JOAT phenomena in academia, Britt Koskella (@bkoskella) pondered on Twitter:
Britt cites an article by Wang et al. (2013) that assesses the role of gender in influencing career choices in STEM vs. non-STEM fields. The authors determined that individuals with high ability in both math and verbal skills tended not to pursue STEM careers. In contrast, individuals who had high math skills, but moderate verbal skills tended to choose STEM careers. This suggests that having a broad-skill set (i.e., being a JOAT) offers more career options, and thus an increased capacity to choose a career outside of STEM. What is also notable about these findings is that the group with high math and verbal ability included more females. This raises interesting questions about the underlying cause(s) of fewer women than men entering STEM careers. Is it ultimately about inherent freedom to choose a career path rather than ability?
Overall, I think it is clear that there is no clear-cut answer to the question posed in the title of this blog post. In my own personal experience, I can say that being an academic JOAT likely helped or hindered me at different points along my career path. Based on the unique experiences of every academic, I imagine there is a multitude of views on the JOAT phenomenon, and whether it matters or even exists. I think it exists, but is defined by perception on a sliding-scale.
Parsons, E. C. (2012). You’ll be a conservationist if…. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 1-2.
Wang, M. T., Eccles, J. S., & Kenny, S. (2013). Not Lack of Ability but More Choice Individual and Gender Differences in Choice of Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Psychological Science, 24(5), 770-775.
What faculty need doesn’t always translate into what administrators think faculty need.
Administrators overseeing faculty, who do their jobs well, find ways to help faculty do their job better. With respect to research, I imagine that administrators want to increase the quantity and quality of student research, increase the number and quality of publications, and increase the funds coming into campus. At many places, of course, the latter reigns supreme.
What should faculty get to make these things happen? What we need, more than anything else, is time.
Sure, organize a grantsmanship workshop for us. Okay, pay for me to go to a conference. It is useful to have an allowance for supplies. I get to hire a student work with me? That’s very nice. I get a little stipend if I submit a grant? That’s okay, I guess.
All of those things are for naught unless I have the time to make things happen.
The basal necessity for all faculty to get research done is having the time to do it. Without that foundation, don’t even bother doing anything else.
Though some consultants make their living telling people how to write grants, a workshop won’t make you write a great grant. That skill is acquired by writing grants, serving on panels, and collaborating with people who are great grant getters. Those things take a lot more time and focus than a workshop. A workshop is a start, maybe, but unless it’s backed up with time, it won’t result in a great grant.
Working with students takes plenty of time. Writing grants, collecting data, and writing manuscripts takes plenty of time. If you were to ask most of us what we need, we’d probably put time at the top of the list. That’s probably true for everybody in academia, regardless of field or how much money we have. Either we have lots of money and need the time to do the work we planned, or we need the time to write the manuscripts and grants that are necessary to bring in money. Either way, time is always at a shortage.
I understand why administrators might be reluctant to give reassigned time to faculty to do research and mentor students. It seems against the mission of the institution to pull the out the batters from the top of the lineup so that they can leave the classroom to work with fewer students. Also, there’s a pull to be egalitarian in the distribution of resources even though some faculty will waste the time given, and others will be productive. So, time can’t be given out willy nilly. But if you really want faculty to deliver, find the ones who will do solid research and give them the opportunity to do so. (Tip: the ones who will deliver in the future are the ones who have already shown the ability to deliver.) Some people will never deliver, no matter what they get. Some already deliver, and will deliver better with more time.
Time is money. And faculty time, compared to other things, isn’t cheap (though it’s cheaper than it should be considering how poorly paid adjuncts are). If you have quality faculty doing excellent research and teaching, then giving them the opportunity to allocate some of that teaching time to research/mentorship is what will deliver.
A while ago, I had a conversation with a colleague that really bugged me.
This scientist submitted a biology proposal to NSF this January, which wasn’t invited for a full submission. I understand that the bulk of preproposals aren’t invited, but the rationale in this situation was messed up.
The reviews were clear that the research agenda and approach was excellent, and that the PIs were academically prepared to conduct the research. My colleague was told that the thing that tanked the preproposal was the lack of preliminary data. The panel thought that there were inadequate resources or facilities that enabled the PIs to get the project done, and that the junior faculty PIs were not prepared to run the project. Keep in mind that this was a project that was proposed to take place with senior collaborators at large research organizations.
I thought the purpose of preproposal was for the PI to argue for the importance of the question and the validity of the approach. Those conditions were met, quite well, according to the reviews.
If you’re at a small institution without a huge research infrastructure, did you know that you need to dedicate verbiage into your preproposal to defend the infrastructure at your institution? I didn’t. My colleagues got dinged on this at the preproposal stage.
Did you know that if you proposed an ambitious but eminently do-able project, that you needed to explain your qualifications in detail at the preproposal stage? I would have thought that that both of those issues would be something to deal with a full proposal rather than a preproposal.
To be clear: If the PI was a tenured professor employed by a large research institution, with access to more preliminary data, then it sounds like this proposal would have been given an invitation to submit a full proposal. In my view, this is an unfair bias against the PI, who wasn’t even given a full chance to propose a research project on account of institution size and seniority.
I was really mad when I heard about this – and I would have taken a few days to call down, before yelling at my program director. Am I off, or are these good reasons to triage a preproposal? They keep saying it’s about the concepts and experimental approaches (and broader impacts) at this stage, but it sounds like it’s just a regular NSF review.
I didn’t submit in the last round, but I am preparing a submission for the next round. I realize there are all kinds of great advice from Prof-Like Substance on how preproposals were handled in deed during this last round; I’m just wondering how much verbiage out of five pages you have to spend on things that aren’t the concepts, experiments and broader effects.
One of the things that I love about liberal arts colleges and other small universities is the opportunity to spend quality time with faculty from other disciplines. We can form a truly diverse community of scholars that is hard to find at a big university where interactions among disciplines are less frequent. These friendships make it easier to shed the conceit that our discipline is more important than others.
Because we are familiar with one another’s scholarship to some extent, there is a high value placed on equal regard for one another’s work. I’m not in a strong position to evaluate the importance of scholarship in a department outside my own, and I’m glad it’s not my job to do so. I can simply appreciate the fact that I work in an environment full of experts, who know about a lot of topics in which I am a novice.
Nevertheless, it is clear that some people are far more focused on scholarship, and mentoring student research, than others. This doesn’t make anybody more or less of an expert, but it does mean that people spend their time doing different activities. Both the quantity and the quality of scholarship vary from person to person. This is normal, and to be expected.
Nobody’s equal. But on teaching campuses we often treat everyone’s scholarship equivalently. That spirit of egalitarianism is often taken very seriously.
I posit that this egalitarian spirit impedes student research. If you ask any departmental chair or administrator, you’ll know that there are some people who are a black hole for research money. If you give them resources, not much happens.
Other people use the funds with high efficiency and get a lot done when provided some resources.
At every teaching campus with which I’m familiar, there have been modest pools of money available for research (including salary, travel, supplies) on a regular to irregular basis. In nearly all cases, these funds have been distributed in an egalitarian – or functionally egalitarian – fashion. A proposal might be necessary, but funding is only deprived from those who don’t even bother to submit a marginally credible 1-2 page proposal.
Any report that is due after using internal funds is pro forma and how much product you deliver doesn’t count. You just need to turn in a report – of any kind – to get funded again. If you ask a chair or a dean about what percentage of faculty use these little pools of research funds to productive ends, with a promise of anonymity, I would wager that less than 50% of the funding recipients used the funds well.
A few hundred bucks doesn’t do anything for anybody, but if you give someone a few thousand, you’d expect to see something of a little substance. A talk presented at a conference, a submitted manuscript, or preliminary data for a grant.
If you just give all of the money equally to faculty, then some fraction of that money is going to be downright wasted. And, I suspect that chairs and deans know who’ll be wasting the money and who will make good use of it. Nonetheless, the egalitarian spirit prevails.
At research universities, non-productive faculty members are cut off. They lose lab space, get more service, and eventually become straight-up teaching faculty. However, at teaching universities with far fewer resources for research, faculty members who don’t produce any research are consistently given resources that often go to waste. They get to keep valuable lab space even though they haven’t published anything in a a hundred moons. The institution continues to harbor the polite fiction that all faculty are active scholars, when many just teach their classes and haven’t attempted to produce any scholarship in a long time, and have no specific plans to do so in the future.
All professors at teaching institutions should have the opportunity to do research. However, this shouldn’t preclude the institution from investing its limited resources wisely to create the biggest impact for the students and the institution. Like in any other profession, faculty members need to do their jobs. If they’re receiving resources for research, then they need to produce scholarship.
Just imagine how many more opportunities would be available for students, and how much more research could get done, if the research funds given to overt non-researchers were available to researching faculty. To do this, it would require abandoning the egalitarian spirit, that everybody deserves the same resources.
Everybody deserves access to the same opportunities. But not everybody should be given the chance, time and again, to waste opportunities. Let’s be clear: I see some people squandering funds made available to them, and I see students who would greatly benefit from others who are prepared to use these funds effectively.
It’s okay to identify individuals who make the best use of funds, and those that make the use worst of funds, and use this information to inform decisions. I wish this happened more frequently.