I see some of my profs win 3 - 5 year NSF grants that are at a minimum of 300,000 USD.

I just saw that younger faculty won NSF grants for 3 years that total less than 50,000 USD -- so about 15,000 per year.

Why are some NSF grants so small?

If this is relevant, the younger faculty that I looked up do pure math that have practical applications, and so they do not run labs that focus strictly on applications.

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At the end of the day, these grants are so small because that's how much NSF is willing to give to people in pure math. NSF's math directorate only has so much money, and so they need to decide how to split this among all applications: fund a small number of larger grants, or fund a larger number of smaller grants. The decision NSF has made (correctly, in my mind) is to go with the latter approach. That means that a reasonable cross-section of working mathematicians (in pure areas) have a chance at getting a small amount of money to support their research, even if it's only a small amount. And apparently they find that useful, because they apply to these programs.

This answer is so matter of fact because your original question does not lay out an alternative. If what you really wanted to ask is why the grants are not larger, then that's because of the answer above, plus the fact that NSF simply doesn't give the math directorate more money. If what you really wanted to ask is why people apply for comparatively puny amounts of money, then that's because it's better than having nothing at all. Recall that if you're paid only 9 months per year, then even getting a tenth month paid from a grant equates to an 11% pay raise. Whether or not the grant is sufficient to really do substantial research becomes secondary in that case.

I guess you have answered your own question. The size of the grant should be enough to get the project done. Some projects take more money than others, and thus the size of the grant differs as well.

It is a reasonable strategy for a beginning academic to start with a smaller, more manageable project, gain experience in managing projects, and only than start with larger more expensive projects. It may not be the right strategy for all, or in every discipline, but I can imagine many situations where this is a good strategy.

  • Even pure math costs something: If you consider presenting the results at a conference ( I would consider dissemination part of a project), if you want to buy out some of your teaching time to do the research, if you count the pens, paper, computer, desk, light in the office (if I get a grant, my university subtracts a fixed proportion to cover those costs) , ... – Maarten Buis Nov 7 at 15:51
  • @user2357 Not counting salaries is likely a significant part of the difference. $15,000 could easily be the effort that PI committed for a math project. – indigochild Nov 7 at 16:07

I can think of two possible reasons:

  1. Some NSF grants are for specialized purposes and come from funds that are allocated separately from the “normal” individual research grants. If the faculty member you saw applied for a grant to organize a workshop or summer school, or buy a computing cluster, or achieve some other specialized goal, an amount in the order of $20-50K would make sense.

  2. It’s possible that the person in question applied to the normal grant program but, for reasons known to them, have very modest needs (maybe because of already having funding from another source) and only asked for $50K. I have not heard of people getting a grant for a higher amount than what they asked for!

Other than those two reasons, I don’t know for sure, but I think if someone applies for a typical “normal” grant of (in pure math) $100-200K, the NSF is a lot more likely to simply reject the application, or to award it for the full amount asked for or something close to that, than to offer a very limited funding option of the sort you describe. Proposals are typically deemed to be either worth funding or not worth finding, so a $50K award wouldn’t make much sense.

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