Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Four hundred pages

 I think I have written about 400 pages of funding proposals since 2004, when I started my professorship at Potsdam. A bit less than half of these were funded; the others were summarily rejected, sometimes without any reason.

Was it worth writing all these proposals? It's an interesting question. It was certainly worth it when the money came pouring in; if every proposal I'd written had succeeded, I think I would have said, yes it was worth it. The failures could also have been very informative if they revealed the funding formula---what was missing?

The strange thing with the reviewing process is that it is always possible to find a reason not to fund a proposal. Always, and without exception. I have reviewed a lot of proposals for the German, US, Netherlands, and other countries' funding agencies.  I could have rejected each one of them. I could reject every one of the 70+ papers I have reviewed in my lifetime, without exception. Every single one of these proposals and papers had enough flaws in them that I could shoot down each and every one of them.

So how do some projects get funded and some get trashed? One would think that after writing 200 pages of failed proposals, I would have some insight on what I did wrong.  Amazingly, I have no idea at all. When you submit a proposal, by definition you have a winner---in your opinion. Otherwise why would you waste your time writing it? Once the review and decision comes back, the reviewers usually complain about the proposal having too much work planned in it, or too little, or it's not focused enough, or it's too focused, or it employs too many people or too few, the method used is wrong/not identical to the reviewer's favorite/of unknown efficacy. Reviewers seem to feel impelled to complain, after all it's their job. Most of them seem to think that they are in an American courtroom drama, the author a defence attorney and they the prosecutor---they feel compelled to take an opposing position.

But some proportion of the proposals that go through the same rigmarole get funded. It's tempting to try to analyze post-hoc (once you know the outcome of the review) what might be wrong with the proposal, but this is like trying to guess which way a coin is going to land after you've tossed it. It is a completely useless exercise.

I sometimes meet professors who claim to know what a winning proposal should look like. I believe that they are fooling themselves through post-hoc reasoning. I can imagine that some basic common-sense conditions need to be satisfied. The work should be feasible, the time frame reasonable, the question important important enough to warrant research. But anyone who thinks they can predict what a successful proposal is going to look like only needs to take a cold, hard look at their own funding record, and be crestfallen that they are performing at chance levels. It is literally as if the funding agency tosses a coin. In today's funding world, it is more like rolling a die, with only one winning number.

In retrospect, if I could get my 200 pages of wasted labor back, I could have written 10-15 papers. If I keep writing proposals at the rate that I have done in the past, I will write another 800-1000 pages of proposals in my working life. Of then, less than half those pages will yield research money. We are talking about 500+ pages of pure farting in a puddle. I could write more than 30 papers instead of collecting rejection letters in a folder. It is an enormous waste of taxpayer money. I am being paid to do research, to teach, to help create a new generation of scientists; if I spend my time writing 500 pages that will go nowhere, it seems like an awfully inefficient way to use a limited-time resource that is a professor.

There has to be a better way. Imagine that you get 30,000 Euros a year just to do research, forever, till you retire. Make it 20,000. You have a group of 2-3 people working with you, and a lab assistant. I am willing to bet that, with a team well-chosen, I can outperform my past performance (6 published papers a year over the last two years, with a group of 10-15 people) with this meagre sum.  I would waste no time on trying to get big money. I would spend 100% of my time on what God originally intended professors to do: profess.  6 papers a year by four people is much more efficient than 6 papers a year by 10 people. It saves time and taxpayer money, it gives you total freedom to go wherever you want to go as opposed to the funding agency, and it gives you a chance to do your best work uninterrupted with worrying thoughts about where your next buck is going to come from.

This is an experiment whose time has come.

Growing up

A five and a half year old boy standing shivering outside in the courtyard of my son's school, waiting for his mother to pick him up; it is 4PM. ``Did you see my mother at the station? Sometimes she goes to the bar and forgets to pick me up.''