Thursday, November 4, 2010

DPS Follow-Up: How Science Gets Funded

It's a fact of life, we all need to eat, our cryostats need liquid nitrogen and where would we be without paying for telescope time? All those things need money, but as postdocs we're not always well acquainted with where the money comes to pay for them. At the basic level, we recognize that our supervisors get paid a salary. If they work at a University, 9 months out of the year (in the US) this salary is paid by the institution. However, if your supervisor is a research scientist, then 100% of his or her salary comes from a little something we like to call the granting system. Grants likely pay for your salary if you are a grad student or a postdoc, and the equipment and resources you marshall to do your work are typically paid for by grants. As a whole, this type of funding is called "soft money." The funding is "soft" in the sense that if the stars align badly for you and your grant proposals are rejected you will find yourself not only without that new Mass Spectrometer you needed, but may also find yourself out of a job.

Some think this aspect of science is a bit unseemly and professors often shield their students from the funding side of the equation. They think they are doing us a favour, but it is to our ultimate benefit to understand how the system works and how to use it to our advantage. The faster we figure it out, the more rapidly we can become productive professional scientists and harness the built-in power of the granting system to advance our craft. The granting agencies know this too, which is why the best of them try to help us out. NASA R&A is the model here, and Curt Neibur (whom I like to think of as the man who makes Bureaucracy fun) from NASA-HQ has been giving presentations for the past few years at career development workshops.

Curt's message is direct: you need to start applying for grants yesterday, and (in the US) you can do it at all levels of experience past undergrad. A key point of his was that nothing attracts the interest of hiring committees more than success in acquiring funding. It simultaneously proves several things. First, that your work is of a high enough caliber as a committee has voted you scarce resources. Secondly, that you will not be a burden on the new department, but you have a proven ability to bring in the overhead dollars that keep it afloat.

Even so, it can be a bit daunting, and that is where Curt's presentations propose to help. By outlining how the system works, how decisions get made, and what you can do to help as well as increase your chances of success, he bleeds that mystery out of the process. By clearly defining the options are, we can make better decisions about which way to go and how to learn how to avoid pitfalls. A great example - you can serve on a grant decision panel either as a full member or an associate as a senior doctoral candidate or as a postdoc.

The clarity of the US system gave me an action item upon my return to Canada. How does grant writing get done here? Unfortunately, things aren't so clear here, but I'll share the information which I have managed to gather so far. First off, instead of supporting 9 months, most Canadian universities support the activities of their faculty for the full 12 months out of the year. That means that the urgency of paying for your missing three months is largely missing, and it is possible to subsist entirely on hard money. However, if you want to support graduate students or do research you still need to bring in soft money. There are several agencies that can help here including the canadian fund for infrastructure (CFI) who you go to when you need that new mass spec or some other expensive durable good. As well there are grant opportunities that come up every now and again.

However, the most common agency to apply to is NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada). You'll be familiar with these folks if you've ever received an Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA), post graduate scholarship (PGS) or postdoctoral fellowship (PDF). These three awards are the usual progression of things, and as such, NSERC does not allow non faculty to write or be a P.I. on a grant application.

That's a combination of a bad thing and a good thing. It's good in the sense that Canadian students and postdocs aren't expected to apply for grant money outside of the USRA/PGS/PDF system and so theoretically can concentrate on their research. Furthermore, since it is essentially impossible for Canadian students or postdocs to obtain grant funding, one would hope that Canadian Universities would not expect grant success when selecting entry-level faculty positions. But at the same time, it's bad because there will be more of a learning curve once you do get selected for a faculty position. It also means that Canadian postdocs will be less competitive outside the country. In a perverse way it could also make us less competitive inside the country, as a department might want to skip the learning curve and go with someone who has existing granting experience from working in the US.

Can we Canadians take advantage of the clear-cut US system? Well, the short answer is no. While it's true that you don't need to be a US citizen to apply for a NASA-type grant (only the nationality of your sponsoring institution is important) if you're a foreign national you will need to move to the US and secure the appropriate visa to hold the grant. If this is something you'd be interested in, note that you may be able to make your application from your home country and move only if your application is successful. To do this, you will need to sign up with a US-based research institution. In planetary science, some of the most well known include PSI (Planetary Science Institute) in Tucson, SwRI (Southwest Research Institute) and SSI (Space Science Institute) both in Boulder.

So what's a Canadian to do? Luckily there are some hopeful signs. For starters, the Canadian Space Agency's (CSA) new SSEP program looks like it hopes to be a Canadian version of NASA R&A, thus it is conceivable that they will eventually break ranks with NSERC, whose rules are followed by most other granting programs, and allow all comers to apply. However, I advise you not to wait. Talk with your advisor and see if you can participate in the grant writing process, as it's never too early to learn.

Oh and one other thing, especially if you're interested in space missions - make friends south of the border! As a foreign national, you don't cost NASA a cent. Therefore we are attractive additions to mission proposals. As NASA has no issue with a grad student or a postdoc being part of a science team this is a flashy way to get your own funding, if you can swing it. The danger is that CSA may choose not to participate, as they did with the most recent Discovery proposal cycle. If that happens, you're up the creek without a paddle. For the sakes of all us early career folks, I can only hope that this decision not to support was merely a blip, as there are many more opportunities to develop younger scientists through the lower-cost missions, and I would hate to see our substantial participation on fewer flagship missions cut down on the opportunities to participate.

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