Monday, October 08, 2012

That new proposal smell...

Last week, my collaborators and I sent off a full proposal and a pre-proposal.  I'm quite proud of both of them: they both build logically on what we have done before, have clear and achievable research programs, and aim towards applications that people care about.  Maybe you'll hear about them again, and maybe you won't, depending on whether the folks on the receiving end agree with us...

What I want to talk about here, though, is that wonderful new proposal smell.  When I'm writing a proposal that I'll be a PI for, I really have to fall in love with the ideas.  I just can't see sending in a second-rate proposal, to do something that you aren't all that enthusiastic about, and I have to think that the reviewers would be able to smell that on one's proposal as well.  Oh, I've been an nth writer on proposals I wasn't enthusiastic about before, but that's different than being a PI, the Primary Investigator, the one leading the charge and holding the bag if things go wrong.

So when you start working on a proposal, there's the foundation you've got and the target you're writing to, and this dance where you try to bring the two together, and figure out how to sell your ideas to the folks on the other end, whose purposes are not your own.  It would be easy to be cynical about it, I think, and to view the process as some sort of money/power game.  And I suspect that it actually is in some of the really giant-money high-stakes stuff, like where Congress gets directly involved.  But in the world that I play in, I don't think that's the case.  And it's not just about marketing, either.

Rather, I look at proposal-writing as a distinct part of the scientific process.  When you're doing science, you need to understand not just "What is my idea?" but more importantly, "How does my idea relate to what else is out there?" and "What difference does it make if my idea is true?" Sometimes this can be related directly to some sort of real-world application (as is the case with my work on energy management).  Sometimes it's indirect, where you might end up affecting the world someday, but someday is likely rather far away.  Sometimes this just relates to how we understand the world we live in, where we come from, and where we're going (whenever I start to fret too much about real-world applications, I remember that General Relativity, one of the most significant intellectual developments of the 20th Century, has only recently reached into the practical world of our daily lives via the GPS in our smartphones).  If my ideas are actually as important as I would like to believe they are, then I had better be able to make a case why somebody else should be interested in them, and a proposal is just a focusing of that discussion to a particular audience.  A good proposal isn't a sales job, it's a proposal for a mutually beneficial partnership with your potential funder, where you doing your research helps them achieve their own goals.

For a really good proposal (like, I hope, the ones we just sent in), the effort of writing the proposal is part of the preliminary research on the project.  The work of figuring out how to connect with the subject of the proposal solicitation brings up new questions and challenges and forces you to confront problems that could be avoided in prior contexts.  With a good team and a good proposal, those tensions lead to new insights even as you write, and you end up formulating a really clean plan of attack on the problems.  It exhilarating, laying out a possible future, seeing how the work all could fit together and what exciting lands it could lead to, before the realities of a project set in and we have to get engaged with all the messy details, side trips, unexpected obstacles, new phenomena, etc. that the world may soon decide to throw at us.  That's what I mean by the "new proposal smell," and it's lovely to inhale it every once in a while, and just to say together with your collaborators, when the documents are filed, "Good work everybody.  I hope we get to do it."

And none of this, of course, no matter how good your intellectual content or prose, can ensure a proposal will actually be selected for funding.  To mangle Anna Karenina, "All funded proposals are (sort of) alike, but every failed proposal may fail in a different way."  So perhaps you'll understand me when I say: the saddest thing about proposals is knowing that you may never get to do the research.
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