proposal figures (xxx kb) (not quite done!)
All in all, it took us three submissions before our project was finally funded, with a start date in 2001. The process also included a preproposal that we submitted to the CD Program, which is an optional step that allows the program to prefilter ideas for projects and either give PIs some guidance and feedback, or save them the trouble of preparing a complex proposal for an idea that the panel feels is unlikely to be successful. In addition, Zeitler and Meltzer made a planning trip to China in order to develop and sign a memorandum of understanding between the project and the Chengdu Institute.
The National Science Foundation is organized into programs and initiatives which solicit research proposals in various disciplines and cross-disciplinary fields. These solicitations can be targeted, or just be open to basic research proposals. The Continental Dynamics Program seeks to fund projects aimed at understanding continental evolution, with the understanding that most such proposals will be larger multidisciplinary group efforts.
Although the details differ between NSF programs, proposal evaluation involves the same basic series of steps. Proposals are now required to be submitted electronically through the excellent FastLane management system, which integrates proposal submission, handling, and review. The Program director selects mail reviewers for each proposal who are asked to submit peer reviews involving a text narrative as well as numerical scores. Each program also has a panel of experts who typically serve terms of about three years. These panelists independently read all proposals, and then gather at NSF headquarters in Washington for a meeting at which the submitted proposals are discussed and their merits debated. The panel assessment, mail reviews, and scores are then used by the program director to make final decisions about which proposals to fund, depending on the availability of funds in the current budget and on obligations in future years. Generally, there are more proposals that would merit funding than there is money, so part of the job of the program director is to field calls from disappointed PIs. PIs receive copies of the anonymous mail reviews, as well as a written panel summary. PIs who wish to resubmit a proposal can do so after a one-year wait.
For funded proposals, the program director can make happier calls giving PIs the good news. However, in an attempt to spread funds as widely as possible, most program directors wheel and deal, using the advice of their panels to suggest budget cuts to the funded proposals in order to eke out a few more dollars. After a period of negotiation, pleading, and counter-proposals, a revised budget is agreed upon that can still support the science goals of the project, and then the formal award paperwork is processed.
If you actually went and downloaded the text of our indentor-corner proposal, you may have noticed that the budget was a healthy-sounding $2.1 million. If you're a US taxpayer, you may wonder how we're managing to spend that much on yak feed and grad student vittles.
The first thing to realize is that a portion of that budget is what are called "indirect costs," or overheard. Research institutions negotiate with the federal government on rates for this item, which is meant to reflect the costs of maintaining research infrastructure (lab space, libraries, internet, utilities, hazardous waste disposal, health and safety, etc.). These are real costs, and the presence of this infrastructure benefits students, so this actually amounts to an investment in the US higher-education system. Of course, PIs and reviewers grumble about overhead when they see budgets grow, and we always suspect we're not getting our fair share of this levy. It's human nature! Anyway, our project indirect-cost rate is about 30% because most of our work is being performed off-campus. So that takes the award down to about $1.6 million.
This leaves what are called "direct costs," which cover all aspects of our project: PI summer salaries and benefits, grad student support and tuition, foreign travel and field work, sample and equipment shipping, use charges for advanced lab equipment and sample preparation, travel to professional and group meetings, telecommunication, computing, and publication costs, and subcontracts for specialized professional services. There are about eight main PIs on our project, and the project is five years in duration. That equates to average funding per PI of only $40,000 per year. Given that support for just a graduate student might run around $25,000 per year in tuition and stipend, you can see that despite the impressive-sounding total budget, we're not rolling in dough, flying business class, or renting limousines (and to make you taxpayers feel even better, we can't use grant money for entertainment or alcohol, and we have to fly US flag carriers unless the routing is desperately inconvenient). We're also not complaining in any way, as this budget has been carefully thought through to get our work done.
It's an overused image, but managing a dispersed science project really is like herding cats. Our project, like most CD projects, functions as a loose collective, with a project leader (in our case, Zeitler at Lehigh) serving as contact with NSF and overall coordinator. Each participating institution has its own directly award budgeted, so other than cajole and suggest and bluster, the project coordinator relies on the good will of the other PIs in getting things done on time, and in a coordinated fashion. This actually works pretty well, but to paraphrase what The New Yorker says about artists, academics lead complicated lives.
Fortunately, the web and email make it pretty easy these days to stay in touch, exchange ideas, and disseminate information. Every year our project holds a group meeting in conjunction with the fall San Franscisco meeting of the American Geophysical Union, which most of us would be attending anyway. And, given the long hours spent traveling to the field, there's usually a chance to catch up then. This web site is another means of keeping the group informed, as there is a members-only section that posts news, updates, data, requests, and papers in preparation.
The goals of this project are the generation of new ideas and new data, and there is an expectation by both NSF and the scientific community that these will be reported in the formal, peer-reviewed scientific literature. However, there are other ways in which results can be shared. These include presentation of talks and posters at scientific meetings, participation in specialized workshops, outreach to the public and school groups, participation in documentaries (like the one made about our work at Nanga Parbat), and development of web sites like this one.
page 1 - science page 2 - origin and organization page 3 - field work