The “astonish us” advice to have proposals funded
I am not sure what to make of the opinion piece by Douglas Green that first appeared on the F1000 website and was recently published in the Tomorrow’s Professor newsletter. Prof. Green’s contends that to get research proposals funded one must astonish the reviewers. I am not sure how things work in biomedical research, Prof. Green’s research field. I do believe though that if the astonishment factor were indeed required to have Computer Science research proposals funded, the majority of grantees would have to significantly exaggerate the significance of their ideas.
I may be reading too much into Prof. Green’s advice, but I find its ramifications disturbing. The majority of important research is incremental. What is dismissively characterized as incremental research builds the foundation for astonishing new developments. These developments do not arise out of a vacuum–from time to time someone is incredibly lucky to connect the dots in unexpected ways to discover new knowledge that will have a lasting impact. In Computer Science, such impactful developments often result from combining known techniques in a new way. Nevertheless, someone must have developed these known techniques, and most likely they have done so through incremental research!
The implication that only astonishing ideas are funded is disturbing because it treats research funding as an award for having already accomplished something of value. Calling research funding an award is somewhat misleading. In US academia, research funding is a fundamental commodity required to keep one’s academic enterprise running. We need funding to hire our graduate students as research assistants, buy research equipment, as well as to attend conferences and program committee meetings. Research funding is what pays the bills incurred through the very process of pursuing academic research. Research funding should not be an award, but rather a mandate for a productive researcher to carry out the proposed tasks.
Unfortunately, the federal research dollar is very tight, and getting funded is rapidly becoming an exceptional event rather than a standard part of an academic job. Computer Science is a fundamentally problem-based discipline. We do research to solve important problems that practically impact society at large. While many fundamental CS problems may not have an immediate practical impact, they are still quite significant intellectually. Nevertheless, it is almost impossible to get funding to pursue these problems. Perhaps one way to become more successful in having one’s grants funded is to “astonish” reviewers with exaggerated claims hoping that they will buy them.
What would it mean to astonish proposal reviewers in a mostly problem-based engineering discipline such as Computer Science? For example, one can paint the problems to be solved as having apocalyptic consequences if left unsolved. The two problem areas that are hard to beat are catastrophic financial loses and lose of life. For maximum effectiveness, these two areas can be combined. I.e., “If you do not fund me to solve this problem, we will lose all our financial assets and then perish penniless!!!” Voilà–we have the winner! Will the reviewers be sufficiently astonished to fund such a proposal if it does not present a well thought out research plan and promising preliminary results? I am not sure, but for the sake of the integrity of the scientific process I would like to believe that the answer is no.