When a Successful Grant Proposal Leads to Survivor’s Guilt

This week’s blog post is an anonymous contribution from a recent recipient of a grant from the National Science Foundation.


I am a well-established, senior scientist who struggles like all of us, in this brave new world of too much information, a constantly changing maze of publications and publication standards, and increased pressure to bring in grants as funding rates dramatically collapse. And, recently, I got the highly desired friendly call from my program officer saying my most recent NSF proposal was funded. Exciting, yes? I should be jumping up and down, yes?

And, well, I was very excited and I remain very happy. But, I am a little ashamed by my immediate reactions and I think my reactions say something about the current research climate in ecology. It’s a little perverse.

My first response really was, “Thank god I don’t have to write two new preproposals by mid-January.” I actually like writing proposals, but it is getting somewhat depressing. It can take the same amount of time to write preproposals as it did proposals, under the rule of human nature that says that it will take as long to write as you have time available. So, preproposals are taking as long to craft as proposals did under the “old NSF rules”. And, my preproposals were almost always accepted, so I just have to write the full proposal a few months later. So, the idea that I would not be writing pre- and full proposals to NSF for 2-3 years was very pleasing! But, perhaps not very honorable . . . .

My second response over the next few days was one of professional validation and, then, a little survivor’s guilt. Colleagues from across the department, heck even the secretaries in the office, were congratulating me. It’s not like this was my first NSF grant. I have been virtually continuously funded from NSF for many years.   But, with a funding rate at NSF that is lower than 4% in my area, it is getting scary out there.   More awkward, there were some colleagues I intentionally did not tell because I felt somehow guilty that I was funded and they were not. I have served on panels and know that there is a lot of really great science that does not get funded. It takes good science and some luck to get an NSF grant nowadays. So, I felt lucky and a tad guilty among my equally, if not more deserving, colleagues.

It actually took a couple of days for me to fully develop my third response, and it is the only response in which I take some pride. The project I want to do is really exciting. I couldn’t do it without funding and now I can do it. I have dreamed of doing this work for several years and, if I pull this off, it will be way cool. The results are not easily predicted and virtually all of the possible outcomes are interesting.   This is going to be a lot of work, but great fun and very satisfying!

And, this is my point. The shockingly low funding rates at the National Science Foundation (and USDA and even NIH) are killing American science. They are creating huge amounts of stress and work, for a miniscule return rate. I have fellow scientists now fleeing to Switzerland and Germany. Young colleagues are stressed-out and leaving academia to get out of the rat race. Bright young graduate students, excited about science, are wondering if this is really what they want to do with their lives. And, I have tenure and do cheap research: I can’t imagine what it must be like now for untenured faculty who depend on technicians, supplies and machinery that requires large grants. But, the low funding rates are also perverting how we value and derive satisfaction from our science.

So, what can we do? Well, politically, we can continue to fight the good fight. We need to make our elected officials aware of the value of research and that it costs relatively little to keep it going. Science has been shown over and over to be a great investment, but no one power seems to care about such facts. I also think Universities and state officials have been especially slow to recognize the clarion call and get more involved in pressuring federal officials and legislators. But, these possible solutions are already being pursued to varying degrees with little effect.

In the short term, I feel I need to get my head straight about where I get my professional validation. It is true that I have had some form of NSF money for most of the least 25 years, sometimes with multiple grants running at once. But, up till recently, I have felt much better about getting a cool result than I have about getting a grant. I’ve appreciated a paper in Am. Nat. or Ecology more than hearing from my friendly program officer.   I think we should think hard about how to train our students how to survive in the scary new world and, in particular, we need to teach them to get their validation from something other than an NSF grant or artifices such as tenure. We need to get validation from doing exciting, fundamentally sound, and ethical research, and communicating the results to our peers and the public. I hope I can get back to that myself.



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