Last week, NSF announced they have stopped awarding DDIGs – the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants in the divisions of Environmental Biology and Integrative Organismal Systems.
How bad is this decision? In the words of Jane Lubchenco:
I’ve read a lot of research proposals and manuscripts. Some manuscripts were rejected, and some proposals didn’t fare so favorably in review. What have I learned from the ones on the lower end of the distribution?
Here’s an idea. It can’t explain everything, but it’s something to avoid.
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.
Update, 02 September 2017: An article came out today in a well-known semi-journalistic website, for which I was interviewed. I’d like to be clear that this piece dramatically misrepresents my views. The quotes from me are real, though they were knowingly taken out of context by the authors of the piece, and attitudes and responses ascribed to me but not in quotes are in direct contradiction to things that I had said in my interview with them. (They represented me as someone who was upset and resentful at having received a legal and reasonable FOIA request for my work — I made it very clear I did not feel that way, and they linked to this piece here which made that point fully clear. They took a quote about a particular incident and implied it was about a different situation. I don’t think an FOIA request is a “jerky move,” it’s something we’re entitled to as people whose taxes support publicly funded research. What is a jerky move is contacting someone asking for a copy of their grant, and then saying that if you don’t want to hand it over, they’ll just FOIA it anyway. And an even bigger jerky move, by the way, is saying things about people that you know aren’t true. I’ve learned my lesson the hard way: if a journalist from a site that rhymes with Fuzzbead contacts you about a piece, think more than twice. I respect the work they’ve done on exposing sexual misconduct in academia, but this level of unprofessionalism leads me to doubt anything on their site, which is a damn shame.
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.
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.
When the National Science Foundation introduced the required “Broader Impacts” criterion, it took more than a little bit of explaining at the outset.
Several years later, most of us understand what a “broader impact” is: In some shape or form, the funded project affects society beyond the scientific findings. There are a lot of ways to approach broader impacts. How do we go about deciding which way to fulfill the broader impacts requirement?
Earlier this year, Nadkarni and Stasch answered this question quantitatively, by evaluating the broader impacts included in nine years of funded proposals within the Ecosystem Studies program. There were some interesting finds, but there is one that I want to single out in particular.
Only 11% of the broader impacts in these proposals specifically targeted groups underrepresented in the sciences.
That’s right, only 11% of the proposals had broader impacts targeting underrepresented groups.
When I think “broader impacts,” I first, and foremost, think of providing training and mentorship opportunities to students from underrepresented groups. I also think of outreach efforts targeting underrepresented populations.
That seems to be a relatively rare priority.
It doesn’t seem to be a big stretch to say that one of the major factors imperiling the future of scientific progress in the USA is that massive sections of our population – and the ones that are growing more quickly – are not interested in, or prepared for, careers in science. If you read every other piece of policy paperwork about science education, you’ll see that the country needs to open the pathway for careers in science to Latino and African-American students. It matters, big time.
But nobody’s doing it in their broader impacts. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?
There are so many possible reasons for this phenomenon, and I don’t want to speculate ad nauseum. Here’s one possibility, though: when people think “broader impacts” they actually do first think about targeting “underrepresented groups.” However, they don’t have a simple or effective route to do so.
How do you reach students from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups? You start with students who are in disadvantaged and underrepresented institutions. Which means that the people who are getting all of these grants funded to implement broader impacts, if not at a disadvantaged institution, should start reaching out.
Are you one of those who haven’t included underrepresented groups in your broader impacts? If so, could you leave a comment about what kinds of things could smooth the path? What do you think that NSF, and we as a community, could do to help researchers at institutions with lots of NSF grants (and relatively few disadvantaged underrepresented students) reach out to underrepresented groups?
Nalini M Nadkarni and Amy E Stasch 2013. How broad are our broader impacts? An analysis of the National Science Foundation’s Ecosystem Studies Program and the Broader Impacts requirement. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11: 13–19.
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:
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.
People who aren’t used to writing and running federal grants aren’t probably that familiar with how overhead works. For every dollar you bring in to do work with your grant, your institution gets an additional percentage from the federal agencies, which covers all of the indirect, or overhead, costs of running the grant. So, a project that directly costs $200,000 actually will bill the feds $320,000, if your overhead rate is 60%. There are additional complications, but that’s the gist of it.
At research institutions, overhead rates are typically > 50%, and sometimes much much higher. Teaching schools typically have lower indirect rates. My campus’ indirect rate is 42%. My previous university had an even lower one, which was only applied to salary. That’s a relative pittance compared to the 67% rate of Caltech, which also includes hefty salary fringe rates on top of overhead.
This money isn’t trivial. Most research institutions use it to stay afloat. Which is why universities value, or at least don’t eliminate, faculty members who bring in big grants.
In theory, overhead pays for lab space, equipment, maintenance contracts, electricity, computers, printer toner, photocopies, technicians and stuff like that. It’s entirely reasonable, at least in concept.
When funding gets tight, like it has been for a long time, some PIs gripe that high indirect rates make it harder for grants to be funded and result in smaller budgets. A good rebuttal comes from Prof-Like Substance. He points out that a lot of complaints about overhead are overblown, and no matter how you slice it, the money comes out of your grant one way or another.
Where does the overhead go, and who makes these decisions? Does it just enter some university general fund? No way. It gets divvied up among various fiefdoms. The president and the heads of financial stuff, who pull in unreasonably huge salaries, decide who gets various pieces of the pie, and the different sizes of those pieces. From the perspective of the scientist, how the pie is cut is entirely non-negotiable. You’ve got to wear a suit, drive a luxury car and work 9-5 to buy into that kind of conversation.
When comparing how the overhead pie is cut across different campuses, I’ve found that there are remarkable inconsistencies, and that some indirect allocation rules are very idiosyncratic.
Despite the differences among campuses, the entities that get a piece typically include:
Everybody loves these indirect costs returned from grants because they have few or no restrictions. I’ve got a returned indirect account and I can spend it on pretty much any research-related need I have. That’s a good idea to get indirect back to the lab of the PI, because so much of the research that happens in the lab can’t be paid out of grants, which aren’t supposed to be spent on office supplies, for example. This isn’t a minor issue. There is no budget within my department that can be spent on toner for the printer in my research lab. And I’m not allowed to spend NSF money on stuff like this. It has to come from overhead, or some other creative source.
Under the salary of the university, our administrators send us out to compete for our share of federal funds to make our labs run. Getting the grants – the direct costs themselves – is merely part of our job and we are always expected to do the research, as that’s part of our job. However, the grants that we land also come with indirect, which funds the university to make it run.
Indirect is a kind of addictive gravy that comes poured over research grants that makes universities even more hungry for grants. I’ve never met a person in charge of stuff that didn’t love it when a grant comes in. Tell your administrator that you just two big-time publications and won a big non-monetary award. You’ll get a nice smile. Tell them you got a big grant. Then, they’ll be over the moon, and then ask for reassurance, “that comes with full overhead, right?” Administration can get bloated feeding on this gravy, if they don’t spend those calories where they need to be spent.
A similar phenomenon occurred within the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars a couple hundred years ago.
The allocation of indirect costs is surprisingly reminiscent of how the British Navy divvied up the spoils of war.
Whenever the Navy captured a vessel from another navy at war with England, the contents of the ship, and the ship itself, would be sailed back to England and sold. They also did this to any merchants allied with enemies, as well as privateers commissioned by enemies. In a short timeframe, the British Navy was at war with the Dutch, the French, the Spanish and the Americans. That’s potential for a lot of profit. Just like Halliburton makes a mint when the United States goes to war, so did the leadership of the British Navy in those days. War meant profit. For these men in the upper echelons of the Navy, news of peace was bad news.
Meanwhile, the captains of these ships-of-the-line were paid a modest living wage to do their job, and were provided the minimal provisions to get the job done. They were only given enough gunpowder to be used in case they were engaged in battle, and only the most spartan foodstuff were provided for the entire crew, including officers. Many captains, who often rose to that position through social connections, came from families with independent means and were able to purchase livestock and other comforts — and politically necessary entertaining — for their time at sea, and were able to purchase additional powder from their own funds that could be used to train their crews to become accurate and rapid with cannons and carronades. That accuracy and rapidity is what won battles at sea. Winning battles at sea is what brings money.
So, when a ship’s captain takes over an enemy’s ship, he sends over a portion of his crew to sail it back to England, where the ship and its contents are appraised and sold. Then, this prize money gets divvied up. Prize money was awarded even when the enemy’s ship was sunk. The Admiralty decided how this pie is divided. Who gets a piece?
How did the Admiralty divide this pie among all of the combatants? The Captain himself takes 1/4 of the prize money. Another 1/4 of the prize money is split among all of the regular crew on the vessel, with more senior members getting a bigger cut. The other categories listed above get 1/8 of the prize money.
That means that 7/8 of the prize money is going to the men that risked their lives in battle, and sailed at sea in often perilous conditions. And 1/8 of it goes to the admiral that issued the order. This money doesn’t go to run the Navy. That 1/8 of prize money from every ship captured or sunk goes into the pocket of the insanely wealthy admiral that sent that ship out to sea. (If there were no Admiral’s orders, by the way, then that eighth went to the Captain as well).
How is this system similar to, and how is it different from, how indirect costs are allocated in universities?
In this analogy, the PIs landing grants are the captains who capture ships. The officers and crew of the vessel are the students and staff of the PIs lab that make the project possible. The Admiralty is represented by the string of administrators that are above the PI in the administrative food chain.
I see a few key differences between the Royal Navy and the university. A Captain who does his job successfully becomes wealthy and actually climbs into new realms of social prominence associated with that wealth. PIs who land big grants don’t get paid more by the university, other than perhaps getting 2/9 summer salary. At my institution, if a PI of multiple federal grants were to approach the
Admiralty administration for a raise in salary, this PI wouldn’t get yes for an answer. All the PI gets from landing a grant is the ability to keep one’s job, or the ability to fund the research that is expected of the PI. The PI also gets a little pat on the back. At least, that’s what happens at my university.
Here’s another difference. In the Royal Navy, 7/8 of the prize money goes directly to the individuals performing the task to enable the work to take place. In universities, even if you include direct costs into this measure, far less than 7/8 of the total award is controlled by the PI. A good chunk of the spoils of successful
battle grantwriting aren’t reinvested back into getting more grants and supporting the projects that landed the grants.
In universities, the Admiral’s take is overwhelmingly greater than 1/8 of the prize money. It sure is at mine, at least.
Is that a fair comparison to make, considering that overhead really needs to be spent on things that the PI needs, to keep the lights on, equipment maintained and all that? I can’t speak for what happens at other universities in any detail, but in my university, the overhead doesn’t flow downhill. Almost none of the overhead gets back to the PI or the Department.
At my university, as rumor has it, all of Academic affairs is lucky to get 25% of the overhead. That’s just a rumor, mind you. The college gets a small bit of that fraction, and the department gets an even smaller piece, and the PI gets a pittance. (I don’t know the exact percentages. I’ve only overheard things at a meeting or two, and our last administration was entirely opaque about finances and the new administration this year is still busy cleaning up the mess left behind by the last one.) It’s not as if the overhead is being used at higher levels for startup packages for faculty, or support faculty research in some other way. I doesn’t even make it over to the academic side of the university budget.
You know that overhead account that I mentioned that I can do whatever I want with? It’s got a few hundred bucks in it. I’ve yet to spend any of it, and it’s less than 1% of the overhead than I’ve generated. (Up until a couple years ago, none — nada – – zilch — of the overhead came back to the PIs). I have to admit it’s hard on the administration to get overhead back to the college and below, because some of the biggest grants that come into the university (mostly education grants) only allow about 10% overhead costs, which I hear is what it takes just to keep the post-award office running. Some of my grants from NSF fit that description, too, because they don’t allow overhead on “participant support costs” often which are the bulk of my awards.
That said, I haven’t observed anything to suggest that indirect costs over the past several years have been spent on any kind of infrastructure to support or facilitate research. Before our new president has started cleaning things up, it’s very clear that the Admiral’s Cut, which was something like 80% of overhead I could guess, was being spent on anything but academic affairs. It looks like this is changing with our new administration. I’ll feel better when I see the trickle that just came through isn’t just an intermittent springtime creek, but a genuine perennial creek. The cartridge in my lab is only going to last out a little while longer.
If you take a step back to look at the big picture, it is stunning.
When Admirals were greedy for even more wealth, they worked to perpetuate the wars so that more prize money would come their way. In the process, they made their successful Captains wealthy and powerful in the process, and allowed for a comfortable living for the crews of victorious vessels.
Administrators of universities that pressure faculty to bring in more and bigger grants have larger amounts of overhead that they can use to fulfill their plans, and they get a boost in salary when promoted to a higher administrative levels as a result of their success, which is built on the grant-garnering skills of their faculty. What do the faculty members get when they bring in these grants? They get to keep their jobs.
When you look at the funds raised from the exploits of Naval Captains and Scientific PIs, who would have thought that the Royal Navy, with only an eighth of the spoils going to the figureheads, would end up looking more equitable than one’s own university?
Hat tip to good friend and master artist Tony Millionaire, who once left on my doorstep a fresh copy of Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander.
Here’s a guiding principle: Don’t write a grant to do a project, if you don’t have the time to do the project that you proposed.
There are a substantial number of corollaries to this principle, especially at a teaching institution. The corollary I’m focusing on now is:
Be sure to get time assigned to the project by your administrators before you submit a grant.
Funding agencies spend most of their money at research institutions. Even if they claim to understand the role of research at teaching institutions, they do not back this understanding up with dollars. It’s tacitly understood that, if you land a grant, that you’ll have the time to work on the project. Even if the program provides for some salary for the PI, that salary isn’t enough to fully fund your effort on the project.
If your teaching load is two courses per semester, then you’re probably already expected to spend some serious time on research. However, if your load is much more than this, then most of your time is spent teaching, and the teaching would be substantially harmed if you’re trying to do a major project on a timeline at the same time.
If you are currently spending most of your time teaching, then you need to make sure that when you land a grant that you’ll be able to get the project done. The time to do this is before you submit a grant. After that, you won’t have much leverage in asking for time.
A number of my colleagues ultimately got fed up with, and left, their jobs because their administration wouldn’t give them the time to work on their externally funded projects. There has been some good discussion about this in the comments in an earlier post. These situations emerged because these scientists found themselves in a position in which they weren’t given the opportunity to do research that was expected of them by a federal agency. You don’t want to be in that position.
To avoid that situation, you need do talk to your chair, dean and provost up front about preparing and submitting a grant. Explain that you want to write a grant for X dollars to be submitted to Y agency that would accomplish Z. This project would bring in aX dollars of overhead and hire M students, and send some of them to grad school. However, you can only include bX dollars of salary for yourself, and to do the project would require more time if you’re going to do it right. Ask them what kind of support they could provide to make this project happen.
Negotiation is based on finding mutual interests. They administration wants a positive student experience, productive faculty, and external recognition of excellence. Grants can provide this for them, and they should be putting some money behind this. If they don’t want to reassign any of your time away from your teaching to work on the grant, then, frankly, you don’t want to waste your time writing that grant. You would be between a federal agency and a hard place if the grant came in and you couldn’t free yourself to get the project done right.
If your university can’t fund your time once your grants are funded, then your time spent writing grants might be better spent writing job applications. If your ambition is to do research, and your institution can’t support it, then you might well have some irreconcilable differences.
Teaching institutions have lower overhead cost recovery rates. Your provost and dean might not get enough overhead back to fully cover your reassigned time. If they do, then the decision for them should be a no-brainer. If they don’t, then they’ll have to find the money in other parts of their budgets to subsidize your research. If they value the research, and the opportunities it affords students, they’ll find the money. Remind them that you’re only asking for their support if the grant comes in, and that most grants are not funded.
On your end, you need to deliver product for the investment. If I’m ever asked to explain what I’ll deliver, I will promise to deliver a peer-reviewed paper in a well-recognized journal for every reassigned course (though not necessarily a first-authored paper). I’ve never been asked about this, though. My institution hasn’t ever funded reassigned time for more than 25% of my teaching load, so this hasn’t been a difficult benchmark to meet.
Most teaching campuses have their grant funding incentives bassakwards. There are plenty of grant incentive programs that help faculty get the time to write grants. I get that it’s cheaper to pay for time to write grants than it is to pay for faculty to work on funded grants.
Far less common is systemic support for faculty who are externally funded. This is what would really get grants rolling.
The last thing you want to do is pay an unfunded faculty member to write a grant. They’ll take the money, and might submit a grant, but if they do, is there any reason you should expect it to be competitive?
If faculty members are getting paid for their time to write a grant, but they won’t get any additional time when the grant comes in, then why would they want the grant to be funded?
When a faculty member really wants to do research, then a single reassigned course to write a grant isn’t goint to make a project happen. Those that want to do the research without reassigned time probably are already doing it.
For example, about a score of us on our campus just got funded a single reassigned course , plus some extra funds, to submit a grant within the next two years. I’m grateful for this time, and the additional funds to hire students to collect preliminary data, which’ll help me get a proposal out next January.
I was probably going to submit the grant in January regardless of whether the university gave me the time for it. I think most researchers who are earnestly wanting to get a grant funded would write the proposal without the time. Don’t get me wrong, the time helps, but it’s not making me write a proposal that I wouldn’t have otherwise written.
I am glad that I don’t have to squeeze it in so tightly, and it probably will be a better proposal because I’ll be less stressed in getting it together. I greatly appreciate the institutional investment. I really want the grant that I’m submitting to get funded. However, is that true for all of the other faculty who received these funds? It would not be rational for these faculty members to want to get the grant, because that just means more work without any time to make it happen. We’re already maxed out just teaching, so how are we going to add in more research?
Our university is paying for our time up front to submit a grant. And, once the grant comes in, do we have any time to do the project? The majority of the people who got funded are working in fields that won’t allow you to use much, or any, of your grant funds to buy your time to work on the project. (NIH is liberal about this, but there’s not much help for those in non-NIH fields. If you did buy enough time with the NIH grant, though, nothing would be left for the project.)
One thing to keep in mind is that writing a grant by no means indicates that you’ll get funded. Even R1 researchers are used to writing a ton of grants in order keep funding rolling, as most submissions aren’t funded. Check out the comments in Dr. Becca’s post showing how many grants folks submit to stay funded.
I don’t want to be put into the position of telling a federal agency that I will deliver on a project if I can’t create the opportunity to get the project done. If I got a standard NSF grant to do a research project, there’s no way I could get a project done to the level of NSF expectations without having the time in my schedule assigned to the project. I expect to get several publications out of a single external grant. That’s pretty standard for an NSF award, I think. How would I get the work done, much less write it all up, unless my institution gave me the time? NSF would let me buy out a course or two per year, or some summer salary, using the grant, but that might not be enough to meet NSF expectations.
So, now I’m in an awkward position. My institution is giving me time to write a grant, but as things stand, there’s no current policy in place about what will happen if it gets funded. So, before then, I’ll need to sit down with my new dean (my fourth in six years), and my provost (my fourth in six years), and have to ask, “I know you are helping me write this grant, but could I have some more?” Their answer will definitely reflect how I excited I am about the proposal that I’m writing over the next six months.
I’ll probably have to max out my salary in the budget of the grant, to the extent that I can’t fund students, and then it’ll get trashed in review for being topheavy. On the other hand, if I ask for only modest salary along with a time commitment from my institution, along the lines that you find from proposals originating from R1 campuses, then my proposal will look far more competitive. So, whether the administration realizes it or not, there are mechanisms that will prevent me from doing a project if I don’t have the time for it.
Small labs should avoid theoretical bandwagons. It’ll make it hard to get money, publish and do good work effectively.
In an earlier post, I described two categories of research: the development of new ideas, and the testing, shaping and fine-tuning of these ideas.
I said I didn’t like either of the categories. I’ll explain that next week, but to get to that point I need to explain how big labs are designed for bandwagons, and how labs at teaching institutions should avoid designing their work to address bandwagon theories.
A bandwagon — as I use it here — is any theory, topic, or issue that lots of people are working on simultaneously. What do I think are some bandwagons at the moment? It’s easy, just pop open a journal and look at the table of contents! In ecology and social insects, my two main fields, here are a few that are at some point in the bandwagon boom-and-bust cycle: functional traits to understand community structure and assembly; genomic approaches to understanding the social regulation of development; models of geographic range shifts in response to climate change; physiological and genomic mechanisms of task allocation. (You could also throw in arguing about group selection, but that’s more about yelling than data.)
I’m not saying that the scientific community doesn’t need this work to happen. All of these topics are very interesting, and people have chosen them because they’re ripe for discovery and progress. It’s not a bad thing that these topics are bandwagons. When great ideas come along, we need people to work on them, including both disagreements and points of consensus. This is the standard practice of science.
It’s so much the standard practice of science, that labs at research institutions are engineered to thrive while working on bandwagons. Race cars are built for speed, thermoses are designed to keep your drinks hot, and many big research labs are designed to produce bandwagon research. (Not all big labs do, but they can be easily engineered to do so if this is the goal of the PI.)
If you’re running your own small lab at a teaching institution, there are a number of major strategic disadvantages from working on the same questions as big labs. These are disadvantages because they make it harder for the lab to get grants, publish papers, have a visible research profile, develop collaborations and provide the best opportunities for students.
No matter what you do, you won’t be perceived as the primary expert on the bandwagon topic. There will always be someone who is considered to be the authority, who is more productive on the topic. This person will have a whole lab working alongside them on the same topic. Moreover, this person’s name tag at conferences will have the name of big of a research university next to their own. Does this perception as an expert matter? Sure it does. This kind of perception enables you to do better science and gives better resources for your students.
Big labs can mobilize to jump on bandwagons quickly. They can turn on a dime by having a new dissertation start on the project, or assigning a postdoc to it. (You’re thinking, dissertations don’t start overnight?! Compared to the timescale of when I start and finish projects, they do. Tomorrow is a story about a quick project done in 2008 but was published this year. That’s par on my course. The manuscript I’m editing today has has had all of the data assembled on my hard drive for seven years. And I’ve been thrilled about it the whole time, too. And – get this – it’s still not stale. It’s actually ripened.)
You don’t want to work on a specific aspect of a project when other bigger labs will get to them quickly. Moreover, big labs will work so quickly that they will exhaust it before you get finished. In ecology, for example, thank goodness I didn’t work on the mid-domain effect myself or I would have entirely missed that wave before I even submitted my first paper. I would like to work on functional traits in ants, as the ideas seem interesting, but the same thing will happen to me if I do that. My paper would be passé by the time I tried to publish it.
Big labs need big funding. Theoretical bandwagons are the things that attract dollars. They can be sold as “transformational” research that NSF is seeking to support. Most of these potentially transformative projects will end up in the dustbin of history, and a small fraction will result in big change. If you’re a big lab and you need to pay for people, then you better hop on board! If you don’t, you’ll have trouble keeping staffed. If you’re top notch, you an create your own bandwagon. But if you catch it in the first couple years, then you can still get in there for one grant cycle, or maybe even two. Following the same principle, bandwagons are horrible for small labs because they can never compete with these big labs that are putting in proposals on the same question. They’d never survive a side-by-side comparison once you put the biosketches up against one another. Of course they’ll fund the lab that they think will get 10-20 papers out of a project when they think you’ll only get a few out of it. So stay away unless you have the record to show that you can beat the top labs riding the same bandwagon.
To be clear: I am not suggesting that scientists at teaching schools specialize on an obscure topic that nobody is interested in, that can be mined for a series of novel but inconsequential publications.
I not suggesting that you stay fully clear of theoretical bandwagons under all circumstances, but only that if you hop on it should be with a big lab that is ready to roll. You also could take an existing project of yours and sell it this way, if you wish, though that will shorten its shelf life.
Next week, I’ll share a taxonomy of research goals, which will explain how I think you can do novel and truly meaningful research without chasing theories-of-the moment.
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:
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?
You need papers to get a grant, but how do you get the data for manuscripts without grant funding?
I don’t have this dilemma anymore, as I have enough interesting data to stun a subadult moose. But I still have to decide how to allocate my time between grants and manuscripts. I’m referring to the nuggets of time when I’m not teaching and advising.
Based on what I have in progress, I think I can get two, maybe three, papers out before the summer field season, if I suspend grantwriting ambitions until the fall (when I have a brand new set of exciting data from the summer). I have one grant pending, and I’m co-PI on another going out in a month or so. So I do have an iron in the fire, though I don’t know if the fire is hot enough to press my shirts when I remove it (that is what you do with the irons in the fire, right?).
I would much rather submit a paper than submit a grant, but I would much rather a grant gets funded than a paper get accepted. On a related note, a couple years ago I went to a Nick Hornby book signing. He was asked about the differences between novels and screenplays for movies. He said he was done with writing screenplays, because of the frustration tied to wasted effort. He estimated that a contracted screenplay makes it to production about 10% of the time. He mentioned that he finished a screenplay for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius [loud gasps of delight fill the spacious room], and that he was convinced it would never make it to production [widespread groans of despair]. I imagine it would have been a gorgeous movie.
I feel about grantwriting like Nick Hornby feels about screenwriting. However, Nick Hornby will continue to ply his trade as novelist without writing screenplays. Without grants, my trade as a tropical field biologist will promptly wither. I’m not paying postdocs or grad students, but I do have to get myself down there along with some students. My hard drive has a number of finished grants which will never get funded. But the list of finished but never-to-be-published manuscripts is incredibly short.
So I’ll be working on the manuscript because I’m just more excited about the fact that it will come to completion and find its audience. All scientists go through cycles of grant writing, manuscript writing and data collection. I just don’t know what the optimal periodicity of each of those cycles should be to maximize productivity.