Archive for: October, 2015

What you learn from reviewing a batch of proposals

Oct 06 2015 Published by under [Education&Careers]

It is full proposals review season for NSF's IOS and DEB panels. Theoretically, what we are reviewing is the cream skimmed from the top of the preproposal pile (+ CAREER proposals). The reality, of course, is that we have the resulting proposals from those who were convincing at the preproposal stage. Subtle, but very different.

One thing that has really jumped out at me this year is the number of proposals that are clearly stretching to make the 15 pages. There's lots of tricks to do this, some more obvious than others, but it's still clear if you add a superfluous table that spans two pages or use five pages for your Broader Impacts that could be summarized in two. I don't remember seeing that in previous full proposal panels, but perhaps I was less attuned to it before. Indeed, some people this round aren't even bothering to fill the full 15 pages, ending their proposals a page or more early. My sample size is too small to know whether this is A Thing, or if I'm just getting an unusual number of these proposals.

I honestly also don't know whether this is a consequence of the preproposals stage or not. I mentioned this on twitter and got different reactions, but the general feeling was there was an influence of how we select preproposals.

As we've discussed before, pre- and full proposals are different documents with different goals. It is entirely possible to sell an exciting preproposal that doesn't hold water as a full proposal. I don't think that's in inherent flaw, just a new feature of the system.

But I digress.

Another obvious issue with some proposals is their lack of balance between writing for the ad hocs and the panelists. What's the difference? The ad hoc reviewers will be people in your field who know the ins and outs of the system. They will be the ones to spot a flaw that doesn't take into account some recent literature in your field. They will be the ones questioning part of your specific methodology. The panelists will likely be evaluating the goals of the project at a different level. Beyond the minutiae of your system, panelists will be determining whether or not your over-arching questions appeal broadly. Is there more than just answering a subfield question here?

Unlike the preproposals that do not get reviewed outside of the panel, every full proposal walks the tightrope between these two audiences, attempting to please them both. The key to doing this is structuring the proposal so that the broadest questions and approaches are front and center, with the gritty details towards the end and well labeled. Mixing and matching the two works for some, but often makes a mess in less experienced hands. When reading a number of proposals at once, this is very clear.

As a panelist I often struggle with how much grant writing advice I should include in my reviews. I mean, that's not technically the job, but that feedback might be just as important as the scientific feedback. Not everyone out there has mentors willing or able to provide critical feedback. Unlike NIH, where the review is written specifically to the study section, NSF reviews are written more with the applicant in mind. I admit that I've found more of this type of critique slipping into my reviews than it once did. I'll be curious to see how that is handled at panel.

Of course, the biggest trick of all is ensuring one takes one's own advice when it comes time to write your own proposal.

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Arming professors: A terrible, no good, very bad idea

Oct 02 2015 Published by under [Et Al], [Politics]

Deterrence. This argument often surfaces in the aftermath of school shootings, which have become almost commonplace in the US. If we simply armed teachers, it would keep would-be school shooters from carrying out their plans. It's an opinion that is gaining traction nationally. I even had this conversation yesterday:

You can follow the thread, but there's several major flaws in this argument. First off, the data just flat out don't support that claim. Even the casual observation that the US has by far the most guns in the hands of citizens, yet the highest national gun violence stats, should tell you all you need to know. There is NO QUESTION that more guns = more gun violence.

But but but, we just need the right people to have the guns! Well, this is also a favorite NRA argument. Spoiler: it doesn't hold weight, either. Check out this 20/20 episode where they trained students well beyond the normal training for concealed carry, told them they would have to fend off a shooter and not one managed to pull their weapon when shot got real and they all got shot.

Now we want to argue for putting guns in the hands of professors. Okaaaaaay, how's that gonna go? Well, to start with, the vast majority of profs I know would refuse. Why? there's probably an infinite number of reasons, but they would start with the fact that even trained professionals often make mistakes in live shooter situations and kill innocent people. Now you want Dr. Smith to seamlessly transition from their economics lecture to gunning down some dude who bursts into a classroom with an assault rifle? Yeah. Ok. How many of the professors you have met would you trust to react to a live shooter incident, fire a weapon accurately at a distance and not accidentally hit an innocent student in the mayhem?

Even if we only secretly hire new professors with Navy Seal training, what would be the effect of having professors toting guns to class? You think your professor is unapproachable now? I'm sure a loaded .38 will help. "He seems much more nurturing now that I know he could gun me down at any moment!" The reality of any open carry movement is that the primary use of visible guns is intimidation. Any professor that would volunteer to carry a gun to class is almost certainly not one I would want to carry a gun to class.

Now, would armed professors make any difference? Doubtful. If someone wants to shoot up a school, is the presence armed professors going to make them change their plans? "I was going to go on a rampage with my assault rifle, but the thought of Dr. Ratcliff's .22 made me reconsider and channel my efforts to community service!" Yeah, no. Mentally stable, rational people don't gun down innocent people on a whim. Assuming that they are taking risk into consideration is absurd when almost every school shooting has ended with the death of the shooter. They know they are not making it out alive, so the idea of armed professors would mean nothing.

Knee jerk reaction aside, there is no evidence at all that would suggest that arming professors would curb the violence we have seen. More guns are not the solution, no matter what the NRA has conditioned us to believe. We need gun laws that actually make sense (see: almost every other first world nation) and the citizenry to actually give two fucks about curbing gun violence.

Or maybe we just charge $5k for bullets:

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