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

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

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

Now here’s the rationale:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, she said,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overhead rates on grants, and prize money of the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars

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he Action and Capture of the Spanish Xebeque Frigate El Gamo, by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield

The Action and Capture of the Spanish Xebeque Frigate El Gamo, by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield

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:

  • The Campus office that runs awarded grants (post-award)
  • The Sponsored Research office that works on getting grants (pre-award)
  • The President
  • The Provost/Academic Affairs
  • The Dean/College
  • The Department
  • The PI who landed the grant

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?

  • The Admiralty
  • The Captain
  • The Senior Wardroom officers (lieutenants, master, and captain of the marines)
  • The Senior Warrant officers (carpenter, chaplain, gunner, purser, surgeon, several more men)
  • Junior Warrant Officers (a greater variety of men with various jobs)
  • The rest of the crew

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.

Negotiating for reassigned time when writing a grant

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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.

Theoretical bandwagons are for big labs

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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.

Undergraduate research offices: what makes one work well?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work on the grant or the manuscript?

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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.