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When applying for US NSF grants as a PI, does it help my case to discuss how little funding I've had?

To give some background: I am a new-ish faculty member; so far in my career I've received 1/2 of a rather small NSF grant (shared with a co-PI), which didn't even come close to covering the actual cost of a PhD student. On this shoestring budget I've been able to produce a bunch of good work, but in ways that are not sustainable as a long-term funding strategy (getting financial help from senior colleagues, begging my department to let me use startup funds past the original deadline, sending students away for internships so that I don't have to pay for them some semesters, etc.).


Question 1: When applying for new grants, will the NSF panelists consider my productivity relative to my budget? Or do they only care about productivity full stop? If the former, how do I effectively convey this lack of funds in my proposal?


Confounding the situation is that I am at a very highly ranked place in my field. In past talks with programme managers at the NSF, I have heard the message, "we try to spread the funds around and not give it all to people at rich institutions like yours." The problem is that I'm not rich, and if my university has money, I'm certainly not seeing it. Ergo, my impetus to ask this question: how do I convey to the NSF panel that I'm actually pretty "poor"?

Another confounding factor is that students at my institution far more expensive than the national (US) average: I have to ask the NSF for about USD $92k/year for each PhD student I want to fund, whereas I have colleagues at other places who pay about half as much. So even the small amount of money I do get from the NSF doesn't stretch very far. I don't get the sense everyone on the NSF panels realises how big this discrepancy can be: for instance, after receiving the grant above (which covered <1 student) I asked my PM about submitting another proposal; the response was along the lines of, "Why don't you just have fun and enjoy doing research on your current grant?" Which leads to my second question:


Question 2: In my proposals, should I address the fact that PhD students are particularly expensive at my institution? Or will this just turn off panelists who think I am "too expensive?"


To put all of this another way: I once had a vagabond friend who told me, "if you want to beg for money in the rain, you should hide your umbrella." Should I be making it clear that I don't even have an umbrella?

  • 1
    I don't have any relevant first-hand knowledge to support an answer, but I suggest this is usually done by finding ways to spin it 'positively', e.g. 'despite a lack of financial support I have achieved these amazing results:' – avid Aug 7 '18 at 12:31
  • I would actually worry that it might work against you. "No one thinks enough of my research to fund me" would be a terrible message to project. The easiest grant to approve is from someone with a long history of successful funded research. No risk seen. This is probably less of an issue for a new academic. – Buffy Aug 7 '18 at 13:55
  • I would speculate that the NSF thinks that the extra cost of having a student at your particular institution is not their problem. To give you an example, ERC grants the same amount of money whether you're in Switzerland or Romania. You can probably fund at least 4 PhD students in Romania with the money it costs to employ one in Switzerland (this is a conservative guesstimate). But then again, you may be able to attract much better students at ETH Zurich than at Bucarest (I suppose you see what I'm hinting at, from the perspective of the funding agency). – Miguel Aug 7 '18 at 20:17
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Interesting challenge. I haven't served on any of the panels. From word of mouth, my assumption would be any proposal will be evaluated mostly on scientific merit. It might help your case that you've been productive without much funding, but then the lack of funding might also be a perverse signal of less previous success. We can all hope they evaluate the proposal on merit, but the history of decision making even among experts suggests other heuristics are likely to matter. In your case, I would hesitate to explicitly signal the lack of funding.

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Having served on ~10 NSF panels, I don't think any panel will care that you're "poor," both because that is difficult to evaluate and because what the panel cares about are the scientific merits of what you're proposing and the likelihood that you can do it. About evaluating "poverty:" resources available vary a lot between and even within universities, and this is impossible to assess. Suppose you can't support a graduate student and the student works as a teaching assistant -- does that, in actuality, take 20% or 80% of their time? Also, how would one fairly evaluate resources shared by colleagues (as in your case)?

More importantly, the panel cares about your proposed work and the likelihood that you can get it done. The quality of past work definitely matters, and what you've done with the resources you have available is important. The quantity matters, but I've been happy to see that quality counts more than quantity.

Aside from all this: Will anyone feel sorry for you given that you've had financial help from senior colleagues and are at a top-tier institution?! I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader...

About Question 2: You want to tell the panelists that the NSF's (and therefore taxpayers') money would go farther if they gave it to someone at a different institution?

  • Thanks for the feedback; useful to get information from an inside perspective. – MicrocardiaWeed Aug 7 '18 at 15:02
  • "Will anyone feel sorry for you given that you've had financial help from senior colleagues and are at a top-tier institution?!" There are certainly some things that make life easier at a 'top-tier' place, and also some things that make life harder. Just like anyone else, I have good reason to worry about my career ending, losing my job, having to move my family, etc. – MicrocardiaWeed Aug 7 '18 at 15:06
  • The issue raised by question 2 is a very good one. I'm constantly amazed that the NSF and NIH agree to pay the ridiculous tuition amounts charged by private universities in the US, rather than simply refusing. – Raghu Parthasarathy Aug 7 '18 at 15:59

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