Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Who put the "fun" in funds?

It's a universal dilemma: science costs money. It's my new f-word: funding. Several funding agencies set up to support geoscience research exist, but many are of the "small potatoes" variety. Others seem more like some secret society, where golden tickets are kept in vaults for the enlightened few. Industry may also be a source of cash, but even with some sort of economic impact, it seems that the people holding the purse strings are not the same as the people who can appreciate the value of potential scientific results. Alas, the National Science Foundation seems to be the breadbasket for most academicians in science.

The NSF is, in its own words:
an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…
It may be hard for the nongeologist to imagine ways that geoscience advance our health, prosperity, welfare and defense but take arsenic, climate change, water and uranium (or hydrocarbons) as respective examples. Because natural resources and natural systems profoundly impact and often form the basis basis for our standard of living, NSF supports scientific research to improve our understanding of earth processes.

The catch: getting NSF to give you money basically requires Jedi skills. Their budget (including operations) of about $6 billion seems like a lot-though it is roughly 1.5% of the Dept. of Defense - but there are always more good proposals than there are funds. In fact, there are increasingly more good proposals than there are funds. Word on the street is "excellent" proposals writteny by Yoda himself (is Yoda a he?) would still get the boot. However, some say that NSF now favors frontier science and supposedly funding frontier science favors young investigators who are more likely to propose high-risk science. The only problem though, is if you crash-and-burn early on, your chances for future funding drops substantially below the current 22% funding rate.

It does seem, however, that getting the faucet turned on is the tricky part. But once it is on, funding begets funding, and considering you don't pull a Kaczynski, the cup should remain at least half-full with only a few mind tricks along the way.

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