The NSF Career Award

From an email from an anonymous correspondent:

Tyler, you may already know this, but I don’t think most people outside of STEM do. The NSF CAREER award (grant) is viewed as a major stepping-stone towards tenure, and there is an expectation that most people will “get one” on their way to tenure at top universities. Yet the requirements are:

1. Write 15 pages, outlining your entire ambitious research agenda for the next 5 years, generally organized as 3 major thrusts with 2-3 paper-sized ideas each.

2. Write 2-3 pages about broader impact, which generally includes broadening participation goals explaining the new undergraduate classes, graduate classes, and extensive community outreach you will engage in.

3. You have about a 20% chance of being awarded this grant, and will hear in 6-9 months (~10% of your tenure clock!)

4. It’s for only $500k, which at most top STEM programs covers about a grad-student per year by the time all the indirect costs are included.

(You may guess that I am writing one right now). The idea that we basically have “prestige” grants that everyone agrees are way too much effort for way too little money blows my mind. And everyone goes along with it!

Other unintended consequences include that you’re effectively forbidden from proposing the same ideas to other funding agencies while the grants is under review, locking you out of other funding sources!

Imagine if I pitched a VC and they said “We’ll get back to you in six months and in the mean time you can’t pitch anyone else, and we’ll only give you enough for one employee for the next five years”. How could anyone do innovation in that kind of environment?!

TC again: Of those it is #4 that I find most astonishing.  That is some rate of overhead!  Keep in mind that throughout world history the costs of intermediation generally have run at about two percent of wealth.  And that is for intermediaries that have to assess the creditworthiness of borrowers, not just send money along.

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