Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Officer, what seems to be the problem?

For various reasons, I'm relatively new to applying for NSF grants. One thing that I have been told from a number of people was to write to my potential program officers and ensure that the proposal I am submitting fits their program. I did not do this with the grant I submitted before moving from Postdoc City and it ended up getting bounced to a different program from the one I had sent it to. In this funding round the second grant I am submitting (with Senior Collaborator) doesn't fit neatly into any of the program descriptions, so I figured it was time to get in touch with some of the POs and figure out the best home for it.

I contacted two POs from different divisions under BIO. The first got back to me with interest and the second wrote back with questions that suggested that they had not really read what I had written. I sent an email back to both, taking time to carefully explain the project in greater detail to PO2. PO1 got back to me and said that our proposal could likely fit under their program, but that I should also look into the program of PO2. I never heard from PO2. Three weeks go by and with the deadline less than two weeks away, I recontacted PO2 about the proposal. After a couple of days I got a response, suggesting that I should send it to their program and how PO2 appreciated me doing my homework ahead of time. Fair enough.

Then we ran into some problems and SC decided that the program deadline just wasn't going to happen. I wanted to let PO2 know that we might be a couple of days late so that I might get some assurances that they would still take the proposal, so I wrote 3 days before the deadline. Nothing. The day of the deadline, I wrote again. Nothing. Now we're two days past and I still haven't heard anything. It may all be moot because SC called me last night to let me know that it might be better to hold off until March for a different program and after seeing the draft of the proposal for the first time last night, I can see why SC feels this way. Can I get a "This is why I wanted to spread the writing between us!" from the congregation?

But I'm left with two issues. 1) I know that POs are busy and have a lot going on, but PO2 is one of 4 POs for this particular program, which receives fewer than 75 proposals according to NSF stats. Is it unreasonable to expect that a PO will get back to you in a timely manner, particular about specific requests having to do with the deadline? A simple "we won't take proposals after xx date" would be fine, but no answer is a bit shitty. 2) Now that SC has run up the white flag on this round, do I bother to contact PO2 and say "Uh, we're more incompetent than even we thought, so you don't have to worry about our late proposal anymore."? I probably should out of courtesy because I may send something to this program in the future, but if PO2 is too busy or doesn't care enough to get back to me, it's possible yet another email will just elicit an exasperated sigh.


  1. I'm working on my first R01 and I have to admit the PD has been pretty helpful. I've been too chicken to actually call, but my emails were answered politely. Now I realise the grant is a fucking abortion and I want to wait till the next cycle (September, unfortunately), but I don't know how to nicely say to the PD, thanks for your help but we're fuckwits and really dropped the ball on this.

    Checked with my collaborators and they're all gung-ho to submit. Aim 3: has 15 lines of methods...


  2. If it helps, here's how I politely backed out:

    Dear PO2
    I am just writing to let you know that we have decided to wait for the March XXX program to submit our proposal. The delays in submitting have, for once, worked in our favor in that it allowed us to produce some new data. These data suggest that the XXX program might better fit our new strategy. Thanks for fielding my questions regarding your program.

    If you do decide to back out in the end, you can try and take a positive spin.

  3. So my strategy of

    "Dear PD,
    I am doing to my best to tidy up this cluster-fuck of a shit storm, but I now understand the expressions 'hearding cats' and 'couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery'. We'll try again next time,"

    isn't the most PC way of doing it?