Is it always worth it ?

In her latest post, following a disappointing review of a proposal submitted to a funding agency, seeking support for her research activity, Professor in Training expresses her bewilderment and frustration with reviews that read whimsical, inconsistent with the stated guidelines of the program, as well as unfair to the applicant.
We all have been there. We all get periodically aggravated upon receiving reviews that make us wonder why we even bothered to write the proposal in the first place, spending an ungodly amount of time that could have been better devoted to other professional or leisurely activities.
Of course, we also end up telling ourselves that it was all worth it, that there is value in the exercise of writing a research proposal even when it does not get funded, and with that proceed to submit the next proposal as soon as a funding opportunity arises.
But is it really necessary to go after every single penny worth of funding, or is there a point where it becomes more trouble than it is worth ?

To be sure, there is value in putting a research proposal together. Going through the exercise of thinking of an original research problem, with the potential of generating thesis projects for one or more students over the course of a few years, becoming familiar with the literature in order to place the proposed work in the context of the collective effort on the part of the community, understanding in full the current state of knowledge on that subject, are all activities that will prove beneficial, not only to guide the research but also will help a researcher give talks, write articles, introduce students to the subject, write annual reports.
And it is often the case that, once a proposal is written, it can be submitted with relatively minor modifications to more than one funding agency. In that sense, one may look at a proposal as an “investment”.
And of course, evidence of a significant grant seeking effort, with at least some success and in any case positive reviewer comments, offering a credible assessment of a person’s standing in his/her scientific community, is an important part of the portfolio of any tenure-track assistant professor.

But writing a proposal can be terribly time consuming. In my experience, in the time it takes to write a proposal I could write a research paper, prepare a number of class notes, schedule an extra meeting with my graduate students, and enjoy a week-end out of town. To see all that work amount to naught in the end, especially as a result of a less-than-transparent review, is not only irritating, it is also discouraging. There are, in my opinion, cases where one should really think twice whether the time ought not be spent in some other ways.

An article is always better than a proposal
Simple as that. While there are, of course, exceptions to every rule, in general I do not recommend pursuing a funding opportunity if it should get in the way of completing an article, especially a time sensitive one, of potential impact. A strong publication record will greatly enhance one’s chances of being funded next time around, conceivably making it possible to aim at a larger prize.

Is there such thing as too much funding ?
Yes, there is. Routinely I speak to colleagues who ask me if I have someone who is on the market for a post-doctoral position, because they have funding to support a person but are unable to find a suitable candidate. I have been in that position myself, and ended up making hiring decisions which I regretted, just not to leave money unspent (one of the worst things an investigator can do for his/her own reputation is return money to the funding agency — it is almost a surefire way not to be funded by that agency again).
So, while being funded is a great thing, and while universities are always happy to skim overhead off any research grant, regardless of what the budget items are, one ought not seek funding without being reasonably sure that the students to support will be there, that the piece of equipment will be indeed still needed, that there will be a room somewhere with power and air conditioning for all those computers.
It is important to remember that very often funding agencies offer little or no flexibility in terms of how the money can be used. Money can come with strings attached (e.g., the requirement that a certain fraction be used for, say, undergraduate education). And, once a budget is submitted, reshuffling money around in light of changed circumstances may be highly non-trivial, and sometimes may not be allowed altogether.

How much money are we talking about, anyway ?
Is it really going to make such a difference ? Is it worth putting in a week of work for a few thousand bucks ? Maybe it is, maybe not. Assistant professors should not be stampeded into a frantic search for funding out of some irrational fear that in the end their worthiness of tenure will be established based on how much money they brought in. Of course, some funding should be sought and obtained, but the notion that universities expect a certain amount is an urban legend — my personal experience certainly does not support it. There are fields of research where funding is very limited anyway, and setting an unrealistic target on a probationary faculty is only likely to put undue pressure on the person. Finally, with only a few exceptions the amount of money that an individual investigator can bring in is going to be a drop in the bucket in the budget of a university, a college, or even a department.

Fool me once, shame on you… fool me twice… can’t fool me again
Program directors (PDs) [0] very much want to get a lot of proposals, for that indicates that the research area, theme and direction being promoted are current, of interest to and can be pursued by many investigators. This means abundance of expertise, vigorous competition among scientists and a greater likelihood that progress will be made. In turn, that bodes well for the future of that program; funding for it will remain relatively solid, and with it the job of its director and of all the people working in it. Conversely, a program that only receives few proposals will be eventually come to be regarded as non-essential, possibly targeting an area of inquiry becoming obsolete, and in any case not likely to have much impact, not only from the mere standpoint of advancement of science but also for education and training purposes.
Thus, often times PDs, in attempt to collect the largest number of proposals, will solicit their submission of young investigators, and sometimes they will be, let’s say, less than 100% forthcoming when assessing to them their real chances of being funded.
Moral of the story: if a proposal was submitted once and a bitter taste was left in one’s mouth, if the review did not seem fair, if a pot of money originally advertised of a certain size mysteriously shrank by a factor three two weeks before decisions were due, if the PD acted like a weasel ambiguously, if the overall process seemed murky, well, things will not be any different next time. If the same person who told you that you would have “excellent chances” the first time, only to let you know the day after that your proposal was not ranked in the top 50, now writes you and tells you that this time around things “will be much better given your record”, do not believe him/her.
Submit the proposal if you feel that there may be good reasons for doing it anyway, but do not count on a more favorable outcome.


[0] These individuals are scientists formally in charge of making the funding decisions, based on the recommendations of anonymous reviewers selected by them.

One Response to “Is it always worth it ?”

  1. Professor in Training Says:

    I take your points but I think they mostly apply to established PIs who are already funded and who have the luxury of be able to choose. As a new PI, getting funding is crucial as my startup monies will only last for a couple of years and with the costs associated with biological/biomedical sciences skyrocketing, productivity in my lab will grind to a halt if I don’t get additional money flowing in within the next year or so.

    I’m submitting grants to every single program/agency to which I’m eligible to apply, regardless of the budget, using preliminary data I collected during my postdoc and using my startup money to generate new data for a new line of study. Even as a PI, my lack of US residency renders me ineligible to apply to some agencies so I need to take every opportunity I can right now, even if it means dealing with the clueless, fucknut, elitist assholes that rejected me again this week.

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