If you noticed I’ve been strangely silent for the past couple weeks, it’s because I’ve been writing in other windows. Earlier today, I had the rather frightening realization that between writing a grant, writing documentation, and some personal writing projects, I’d (with a lot of help from colleagues) produced 150 pages of worth of potential dead trees. That means the group of us averaged 20 pages a day. Kinda cool. Kinda scary.
The primary source of tree death was a grant that I and colleagues submitted as part of a NASA request for proposals. This is a process that led my husband to determine astronomers are truly insane. The reason for his decision is simple: The group of us working on this project wrote the grant outside of our normal work tasks essentially as volunteer paper pushers. The chances that any particular grant will get funded are low. The process of writing a grant (no matter how much you like your colleagues) is painful. At one point I spent three hours trying to figure our why two sets of numbers were off by less than 1% of 1% because I knew that error in the budget would cause out proposal to get red flagged.
I didn’t cry. I did use expletives. I’m proud of what we did, but it’s going to be at least a few weeks before I’m willing to go through that again.
At a certain career point (and sometimes multiple times!), researchers have to not only publish or perish, but also write grants or perish. The money from these grants funds our travel, provides us equipment, and allows us to hirer students. It’s this last thing that drives me the most: I work with a great group of students right now and I’d love be able to pay them enough money that they can focus on research rather than getting distracted by other jobs. I want them all to succeed and to publish papers before they graduate so they have a better chance to get into good graduate schools and get good jobs. All of them came by my office or pinged me on email last week, while I was contemplating how much I hated writing grants, and thanked me and the rest of us grant writers for our work. That kept me going, and I repeat, I’m currently working with a great bunch of students.
Now I just need to fund funding.
Money can come from many sources. There are NASA and NSF grants, contracts through people who already have those grants, money from private foundations, and the occasional large bundle of money from heaven (otherwise known as friendly affluent donor – the type positions, laboratories or buildings are named after). Currently, as I look to feed my friendly, doe-eyed students, I am considering all the possible sources I can chase.Â¬â€ I will be writing at least one more grant this summer, if it kills me (and it might).
Writing grants is something we do so we can earn the salaries and other money we need to door our jobs and to hirer students to do their jobs. This is one thing I don’t think people in general get – when the government cuts funding to research programs – reducing the budget of NASA or the NSF – they are making it harder for me to get my students our of retail and into research. They are making it harder for me to back up my data, and present my results at conferences. Grants are my business operating budget, and you can almost view researchers as small business owners. I have to cover insurance, and social security, and even paper and postage in some cases – all to do my research.
As you look at government economic recovery packages that cause the budgets for research to drop, remember, there might be a brilliant undergrad who will be forced by that stimulus package to work in a local retail outlet instead of studying the stars because the money didn’t go to research.
Right now I’m hoping for a funding miracle, a perfect storm of private and governmental grants. And I’m working to make that miracle happen, one grant application at a time. When that miracle happens, you’ll have me back on a daily basis blogging, and oh what wonderful things I’ll have to share.
Until then, I suspect there will be days when my away message simply reads, the grant application pwnd me.