The Grant Application Pwnd Me

Posted By Pamela on Jul 16, 2008 | 12 comments

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.  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.


  1. 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.Or there might be some working stiff who has to go into hock to buy his kids college textbooks because that “stimulus” package net transferred money from his pocket into someone else’s. The money all comes from folks who W_O_R_K … regardless of what hate-filled propaganda you see in the press. Don’t cry about your money being cut…every nickel you get via grantsmanship come from someone else who earned it but had it seized.

  2. >…every nickel you get via grantsmanship come from someone
    >else who earned it but had it seized.

    Yes. For a far, far greater, and more nobler purpose, I assure you!

    Science research grants – one of the only good things that come from paying taxes.

    Well, that and Public Libraries. And bridges that don’t fall down as you’re driving across them.

    Oh, and thank you, Pamela. I finally now know, after several dozen months of wondering, what “pwnd” means.

  3. It makes you wonder really when banks and big business make so much profit and people who are pursuing really worthwhile things like science have to beg, borrow and steal for research funding. Theres something wrong there. Next, they’ll be teaching creationism….oh wait they are in some states!

  4. For a far, far greater, and more nobler purpose, I assure you!Than educating and clothing my own children? Than curing AIDS? Or cancer? Virtue is easy when you’re spending other people’s savings.I happen to be an enourmous science buff. But I don’t demand total strangers pony up to fund my favorite pursuits.

  5. TaxpayingFool maybe you should refocus your efforts on complaining about the tax money that is wasted due to ignorance and a lack of common sense. Why not complain about all the money they’ve spent on two failed contracts for a refueling plane? Or how about the money the government is using to prop up all of these financial institutions that issued all of these ridiculous sub prime loans? I agree, seeing money wasted is infuriating. But please, don’t point the finger at grants. This money is used to support people who become our next generation of scientific leaders. This money supports research that has saved lives, improved our planet, expanded our understanding, and helped so many learn so much.

  6. Your husband is right… astronomers are crazy.

    Sometimes it’s not “write grants or perish,” it’s “write grants AND perish because the grants aren’t funded.”

    (Speaking from personal experience.)

    -Rob Knop

  7. ProgrammerGeek, I agree with you. I was addressing the points raised by the original post. Using self-interested unaccountable lawyer-bueaucrat-drones to allocate resources is empirically insane.

  8. Taxpaying Fool, the problem is there is nothing wrong with research, students, teachers etc being funded by grants. Not even if these are large grants. This is what our money SHOULD be going toward. These are the important reasons for tax money. You make it seem as though someone writes a few pages for a grant is handed a huge chunk of money then has a holiday. You talk like students funded by grant money are just handed cash and go back to their dorms. This is assuredly not the case. These people spend countless hours, endless nights, and make many sacrifices to meet success. Without these grants none of that would be possible.

  9. I am well aware of the effort that goes into grantsmanship and the work thus funded. That does not alter the mechanism by which the funds are originally garnered, nor does it address the disconnect between the wishes of the populace and those of the grant givers. One poster above talked about idiotic creationism in the public schools…that’s a perfect example of the lunacy of the current process, by which one group of unaccountable self-interested bureaucrats gets to seize funds, and another clique gets to dole them out in keeping with whatever agenda they wish.

  10. In such case, you should not discredit all grant work so easily with blanketed statements. I understand your point, not all of the money goes to what everyone wants or believes is an appropriate cause. I encourage you to take your opinion farther than the internet. Get in contact with your government representatives and be heard. But please, don’t discredit everyone else so quickly.

  11. My “government representatives” are, respectively, a wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers union, a self-serving carpetbagger, and a power-mad social climber. After a few years of generic replies followed by silence, I stopped wasting my time on them.

  12. New York eh? The only thing I can tell you is get more involved, or move.

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