Chiang Mai Thailand, Dec. 22, 2010 — I am currently writing a research proposal that is due at the end of this month, and I am reminded of that old expression about democracy, “Democracy is the worst system of government out there … except for all the others that have been tried.” For the past decade I have worked as a soft-money research scientist, meaning that I generate, through grant writing, all of my own salary. I have managed to do this successfully for the past decade, while some of my colleagues have done so for more than 30 years. It still amazes me that this can be done, though it does seem to be getting increasingly more difficult these past several years. Sometimes I feel like a streetwalker, going out to work the “neighborhood” (National Science Foundation, NOAA or other funding agency) to bring home some “sugar” (grant dollars and the associated overhead) to give to my “Daddy” (Columbia University). To be certain, Columbia protects me, gives me a good, respectable home and enough of the dollars back to “buy myself something pretty” (research equipment, travel to a conference). In turn I, and all the others in CU’s stable, bring home the dollars that run institutions like ours. And CU’s stable is stacked with really top researchers that through highly skilled grant writing bring home an awful lot of sugar.
It has been this way for decades, and there are many among us who have managed to bring in full funding for an entire career, supporting not only ourselves, but lab technicians, administrative staff and a slew of other integral and highly skilled folks. In my opinion it is the worst system out there … except for all the others that have been tried.
There are several fundamental things to be said in defense of soft-money research. First, the need to always find funding keeps us really sharp. If you don’t remain hungry and sharp, you don’t get funded. And therefore we have to always be thinking of ways of adapting what we do to various calls for proposals, in order to find ways to supply funding agencies with the kinds of data and results they are soliciting. This takes a great deal of creative thinking, and it is not a career path for the faint of heart. At times it is truly exhausting, and downright discouraging when proposals are rejected. There are fat times and lean times, but whenever it seemed that I would be donning the KFC jacket and serving up an order of chicken and potatoes with a side of gravy, I manage to get something funded. There is nothing like having your back against the wall to make one perform.
The most important element of this whole process is peer-review, where other scientists who are experts in related fields review the submitted proposals and they pass judgment on which of the hundreds of proposals submitted merits funding. This is a highly competitive process, and a small percentage of proposals are actually selected, so you have to be really highly ranked to have a shot. While I am writing this proposal, I am also reviewing one for another National Science Foundation program, and I take it very seriously to be as objective as I can and give the most fair and thorough review possible. This is perhaps the most important aspect of this job — to carefully and critically pass judgment on the work of other scientists — as they do likewise for mine. The same peer-review process is in place for published papers as well as for proposals. Again, peer-review is not without its faults, but I do think it is the best system we have, and I am a big proponent of it.
It is almost Christmas, and all of our administrative people at LDEO are going away for the holidays, and I am here, in Chiang Mai, with a dubious link to the Internet and a 12-hour difference between me and the rest of my world. The deadline for this proposal is just after the holidays, not a very easy time to get things done. Furthermore, I have co-PIs (principle investigators) in Australia and the U.S., in the Philippines and Vietnam. Bringing this type of collaborative project together is truly daunting, and consumes a great deal of time and energy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. So to all those who take the time to read this blog, I thank you and I wish you a happy and healthy holiday season. I know what I will be doing — mostly writing — but Orawan and I will take the time to have a Christmas dinner of northern Thai food with some friends we just met. And now that the weather is cool we will go for a long walk around the old city moat, and make merit at the temple, and by taking my mother in law out to visit the market. And with a bit of luck, this proposal will come together and will be worthy of funding, and I can put the KFC jacket back in the closet for another year.