Monday, August 1, 2011

2011 NSF CAREER Proposal -- ugh failure(s)

Last week, I submitted my third and final attempt at the NSF CAREER proposal.  As with my prior two attempts, I pledged to publish the proposal openly, and I'll stick to that pledge.  Despite my sleep deprivation, if I had been satisfied and proud of the proposal, I would have taken the time to post the proposal right away last week.  The truth is, though, that I am demoralized and embarrassed by the proposal--all due to my own shortcomings.  Well, I painted myself into a corner by promising to publish the proposal openly, so I can't hide it permanently.  But as a compromise with myself, I am allowing myself to publish only the Specific Aims section now, which I am reasonably happy with.  A copy can be found on slideshare: CAREER: Open-science studies of effects of water isotope and osmotic stress on biomolecular interactions.  I will publish the disastrous remainder of the proposal once I have the stomach to do so in the next few weeks (before it goes out for review).

I remain happy with the Specific Aims, which many successful grant writers argue is the most important section of the proposal.  What I like most is that I decided to elevate "open science" to be one of the three specific aims.  I also love the science I am proposing and would love to have my students focus on this research plan over the next five years.

So why a failure?  Well there are many failures, the worst and most embarrassing is that I completely ran out of time and did not submit even close to a decent final product.  I guess those of you who can't avert your eyes from the worst train wreck will see this when I post the full version in a few weeks--and I'm not kidding.  As I mentioned above, this is all my fault.  I made a huge mistake and attempted to completely rewrite the proposal instead of tweaking the 2009 version.  The 2009 proposal was declined.  The reviewers were very thoughtful and liked the research plan and loved the "broader impacts" of the open science, as I described in another post.  They just did not believe I could carry out the research as we did not have enough preliminary data.  I think I would have had more than a 50% chance of getting it funded this time, if we'd generated a lot of preliminary data supporting the proposal over the past two years.  It would have been relatively easy to revise the proposal and assuage the reviewers' concerns.  However, we failed at generating much of this preliminary data.  We did get some data, but not enough, and have been stymied in large part due to lack of funding.  My lab was very lucky to receive funding for an unrelated project from DTRA, and thus we spent most of our resources (time and money) on that project (kinesin) as opposed to generating preliminary data for the DNA unzipping work.

I could have added in a lot of new data (and "spin") and I think the tweaked CAREER proposal would have had a shot at getting funded.  I also think it would have been reasonable for NSF to fund it, because given the amount of funding ($150K / year for 5 years), we would have received the necessary resources to pursue the research.  So why didn't I go this route?  I wrestled with the decision for many weeks with no path obvious to me.  I ultimately went with my gut and decided to scrap most of the proposed DNA unzipping research and to instead rewrite the proposal to focus on the solvent effects of water on kinesin and protein-DNA interactions.  There were many pros and cons I weighed, consciously and sub-consciously, but I'd say the prominent reasons for rewriting were the following: (a) I'm worn-down by years of pursuing the DNA unzipping project without the proper financial or human resources, (b) I'm fascinated by the question of whether deuterium is essential for some cellular processes (c) I don't have the ability or desire to manage a lab that is pursuing two large and separate research projects and (d) our funded project--studying the molecular motor kinesin--is going very well, is exciting, and, frankly, seems much more doable since we've had two years of sufficient funding for it.  While the kinesin grant saved my lab and allowed the graduate students to remain in our lab, it did have a side effect of diverting most of our resources from the project we had been pursuing to map native chromatin by DNA unzipping.

In retrospect, I think I made a good decision, but I waited much too long to decide, a huge mistake.  I spent as much time as I could on the rewriting, but just flat-out failed.  Big time.  So badly I still don't have the stomach to talk about it.  Because of the deadline and the point I am in my career (tenure decision this academic year), delaying submission was not an option.  So, I submitted a version that is very poor in many areas. I feel bad about wasting the time of reviewers, including those from 2009 who obviously spent a lot of time coaching me on how to improve the proposal.  I hope, maybe, that some of my ideas despite being poorly written will still be enjoyable to the reviewers.  What I feel worst about is that I really like the research proposed in the Specific Aims.  I think it's the research path I should pursue and the students would succeed and make a big impact.  And I totally squandered the opportunity to have it funded by the NSF CAREER program.  So, even a week later, I remain embarrassed, disappointed, disgusted, etc.

I suppose there are bright sides.  As we all know, research funding rates are very low anyway--so even a perfectly-written proposal would have been lucky to have been funded.  And, if I don't piss off too many reviewers, I can still pursue funding via the many other funding avenues that I need to pursue anyway.  And if I don't get the funding, I think the ideas are still worth pursuing.  So, by openly publishing the entire mess, maybe another group of researchers will be encouraged to pursue the open questions with their own resources.

SJK August 18, 2011: As promised, I have posted the full Project Description.  Here is a link on SlideShare: http://www.slideshare.net/skoch3/2011-nsf-careersteve-koch-full-project-description

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