Science

Broader Impacts

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’
Isaac Asimov

Like many scientists, I feel that I spend an unfortunately large amount of time writing research grants. Having to devote so much time to finding money to do science (instead of actually doing science!) is one of the aspects of academia that I dislike. I actually meant to start writing this skepchick post earlier, but I just spent the last two hours working on an application for funds to attend the upcoming Goldschmidt geochemistry conference. The Goldschmidt conference is generally held in exciting locations… Melbourne, Cologne, Vancouver, Davos… Goldschmidt is being held in Prague in 2011. This year Goldschmidt is being held in good ole Knoxville, TN! Most of my friends are disappointed that Goldschmidt isn’t in a more exotic locale, but I’m actually excited for several reasons:

1. Tennessee is beautiful.
2. My grandma lives there, so I get a free trip to see my grandma. Shhh! Don’t tell anyone I’m half-southern.
3. Plane tickets to Tennessee are much cheaper than plane tickets to Prague. Because I have to raise my own funds to attend this conference, cheaper is better!

Not all graduate students have to scramble for funds to attend conferences, but I do. The reason is long and complicated, but basically it’s because I decided to follow my nose for my PhD research. I used to be a graduate student working on a well-funded research study of a chain of volcanoes in the Indian Ocean. After a year and a half of working on this project, I divorced my PhD advisor and ventured out on my own. I won’t go into the reasons here- they aren’t important, other than that it was one of the best decisions I ever made– but I had to leave.

When I switched advisors, I had the option to fall into another pre-planned, pre-funded project, but I didn’t want to. I had always wanted to work on the Samail Ophiolite in Oman, so without knowing much more than that I wanted to go to Oman, I asked my new advisor if I could work there. He said sure, and we came up with a project and wrote a research proposal. I owe this advisor big time- he supported me in my research and continues to support me to this day. Someone gave us $50,000, which lasted a year (science is expensive!). We ran out of money, so I became very good at convincing various scientists to let me work in their labs for free. I must be cute or something because this mostly worked. Oh, and shortly after we received our first grant my second advisor announced that he was taking a job out west… so I had to find myself a third advisor. I still work with advisor #2, but his leaving meant that I had to be independent (in lab and such) much sooner than I wanted to be. I guess it will be good for me, in the end.

We had no money at all for about six months, and during this time I wrote five grant applications (six once I submit this one) with advisors #2 and #3. Three were rejected. Rejection is painful- you have to have tough skin to apply for grants, since most are unsuccessful and the reviews are sometimes scathing. Finally, someone gave us $35,000 (the other succesfully funded grant was $900… peanuts but still money)… enough to cover about another year of analyses, but with no money for extras such as conferences. Since attending conferences is really important in science (you have to tell people about your research!), here I am writing another grant application.

I am getting better (I guess… maybe more grants will be funded) at writing grant applications, but it is challenging and time-consuming. I think the most difficult part of filling out grant applications is the now-popular “Broader Impacts and Significance” section where you have to– as far as I can tell– explain how your research will simultaneously cure cancer, save the world from global warming, and educate a large number of inner city middle school students. I exaggerate, but it is a challenging section to write. Sometimes scientists just want to do science because it’s science! It’s really interesting to learn more about the universe we inhabit, even if knowing about some distant galaxy or the existence of some deep-sea volcano has very little impact on the day-to-day lives of most humans. How do you justify science? Sometimes it’s really obvious, but sometimes… it’s not. It’s just interesting. For me, science is all about exploration. Often, you don’t know about the broader impacts and significance of your research until much later. If you know the impacts of your science before you start, why ask for money to do the science? You already know the answers and the implications. At least, you think you do.

Don’t get me wrong- I am not entirely against the Broader Impacts sections of grant applications. I think it is important for scientists to justify their research (remember that National Science Foundation money ultimately comes from you, the taxpayer), and having to think about *why* you carry out your research helps you hone your research. You have to focus your research towards a specific goal, and I think that can be very beneficial. However, not all scientific research is going to save the world. Some research is just interesting and helps us learn a little more about our universe, to unravel its mysteries piece by small piece. Overall, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the most important scientific discoveries– the ones that will truly save the world or at least change the way we live in it– are usually stumbled across by surprise. Isaac Asimov said it best above.

Evelyn

Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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10 Comments

  1. One of the reasons I decided not to pursue a PhD in molecular biology was because you don’t actually get to do bench work. It’s a lot of time trying to get money and going to faculty meetings. I loved doing the grunt work. I love science and because of my enthusiasm, my kids love it,too. One of the reasons I home school is because there is not enough emphasis on math and science, at least not in Atlanta. And I just heard today that the state is cutting some of the technology programs. Science is not just a bunch of facts to be learned but a way of thinking that will help in any field of study.

    I admire your ambition and hope that you will be able to get the funds to do the research you want to do.

  2. I’ve got a ton of respect for you. The extent of my NSF experience has been the application for the GRFP (and yeah, that broader impacts section was difficult on a grant for theoretical computer science work; I find out about that in less than a month).

    I’m not even close to having to write my own grants yet, and I think it’s awesome that you got your hands dirty and landed some money while you’re in grad school. You rock. I hope your other apps get funded!

  3. The most depressing thing is that you will be rejected 90% of the time IF you are as good as everyone else! This means that the next year the same proposals will come back with another layer of polish. The quality of proposals in review is outstanding.

    That said, you have to not worry about whether a project is funded or not funded. You can’t control the review or the excellent quality of the competition. All you can control is the perfection of your own proposals.

    This is why Broader Impacts is so important. When all of the science is excellent in all proposals it is HOW the science will affect others that becomes a penetrating basis for a favorable review and decision.

    Never underestimate Broader Impacts. Personally, I think about them all the time. How can I get the science from my lab into the schools, into the neighborhoods and community? Think of local schools, museums, civic groups, etc. Set up a Cafe Scientifique in your area. Make a website where kids can participate in a watered-down version of your work. There are zillions of great ideas. If you can come up with innovative tools it is extremely fulfilling for you and the people you interact with.

    Check out mine at http://www.respondingtotherainbow.com. This is one of my NSF-funded outreach projects.

    Many treat this as a hoop to jump through for NSF funds and I think that’s sad. Your work is important, but it is the impact of your work outside of the seven eggheads that really care that matters.

    Congratulations for staying in the business and fighting to do quality science. If you were my student I’d do everything I could to get you out to conferences. We’re never too proud to do a fudge sale if it means we can get our work out in front of the field’s experts.

  4. Best of luck in getting your grants funded, Evelyn! You sound like an amazingly self-motivated scientist, and I am blown away by your dedication to pursue your dreams.

    Not having to write grant proposals was THE most important factor in my decision to work as a corporate scientist. Of course, the tradeoff is having to work on things that the company finds interesting/valuable, instead of having 100% freedom in what I study. Fortunately, I am easily entertained and have always found things to work on that interest me scientifically. As long as I am learning something new and useful, I don’t care so much what it is. Thus, I went from working on microelectronic circuits to advanced orthodontic materials in the course of the last year.

    But I certainly do admire those, like yourself, who care passionately enough about a given subject that they are willing to make the tough sacrifices involved in being an academic scientist. Go you!

    And the cute thing? Yeah…

  5. That sucks about both your advisers. A friend of mine had both of his leave on him, he’s now working with my adviser, I had to ask him not to jinx her though, she’s up for tenure this year.

    I’ve personally never had trouble doing BI statements, despite the fact that I’m doing theoretical research. Then again IT is a really applied field so I’m sure that helps.

    The part that always bugs me about grants is not the scathing reviews but the ones that say, “This is absolutely brilliant and fascinating research. We think this absolutely needs to be studied…but we’re not going to fund you.” That just makes me want to pull my hair out because it means I don’t have a lot of areas to improve in the proposal I just have to keep resubmitting until I hit the right reviewers from the NSF.

  6. If nothing else, in a worst case scenario, grant writing is a very lucrative field (As in six-figures lucrative).

    If you have a track record of successful applications, you can do very well for yourself. If you can do it part-time and continue your education, you might be able to “fund yourself,” so to speak.

    (Evelyn: Advice from a pilot: Always have an alternate plan.)

  7. @Siveambrai: It’s bad enough when your adviser leaves for another job, but I new one fellow grad student who had two successive advisers DIE unexpectedly (due to illness). I always wondered how he managed to convince a third person to take him on!

  8. I attended a GSA section weekend in Knoxville once. It was a blast! The grad students and profs had lots of mixers (with alcohol) and were happy to take us out on the town. Fantastic time thanks to the lovely students and staff of UTK. I met the coolest people, heard all about their interesting research and laughed a lot. Love Knoxville!

  9. Coming from someone who occasionally reviews grant-type applications, here is some free, unasked-for advice: if the grant limit is $Nxx,xxx.00, don’t have your estimate of total costs come out to $(Nxx,xxx.00 – 0.01). This is the sign of a grant-whore.

    If your work will not save the world, but might improve knowledge in some small way, write that. I will be more impressed with honesty and a good appreciation for the scope of work than some grandiose blathering.

    Finally, find out and understand the rules. If you are not allowed to claim new lab equipment as a cost, when it is strictly prohibited, then Leave It Out!!

    Finally, keep plugging away! Science is a noble, if hard, path.

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