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