Funding: the Lifeblood of Scientists


Alejandro Soto


July 14, 2013

An abstract image with hazy circles and fields of color.

I submitted my first two proposals as a principal investigator (PI)1 this last month, which is a major milestone as newly minted PhD. In fact, I have a bit of a head start since I was able to submit proposals as a PI while still only a postdoctoral scholar. Most academic institutions do not allow postdocs, as we are commonly called, to be a PI on a grant proposal. Fortunately for me, I work at a non-profit research institute that encourages their scientists to pursue grants funding as a PI, both early and often. Since grants are the lifeblood of scientists here in America, submitting proposals as a PI is an important step in the progression of my scientific career.

In America, the systematic and extensive funding of science by the federal government is a modern, post-WWII phenomenum, however, the importance of federal investments in scientific research was recognized as much as 80 years earlier. With the founding of the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Federal government recognized the importance of science in government and economic policy by providing a formal mechanism for communication between the scientific community and political community. For most of the next 80 years, however, there was not an ongoing, organized program for providing federal funds to the general scientific community. Specific projects were funded, but apparantly the infrastructure that allows the modern scientist to propose research to be funded was not in place.

Things began to change during the 1940’s, due as much to the demands of war as the vision of President Roosevelt and others. Near the end of World War II (WWII), at the request of President Roosevelt, Vannevar Bush, the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, reported the need and means by which the United States could maintain its rapid progress in scientific research once the war was over.2 Bush felt that scientific progress was fundamental to making progress in our economic and social lives and that understanding nature and its laws, i.e. basic research, was critical if we wanted to apply science to our society and our lives. Bush also recognized that basic research was not, in isolation, economically profitable. Instead, Bush supported continuous federal funding to provide the basic scientific research that industry required to make technological developments and thus improve our lives, both economically and socially.

Advances in science when put to practical use mean more jobs, higher wages, shorter hours, more abundant crops, more leisure for recreation, for study, for learning how to live without the deadening drudgery which has been the burden of the common man for ages past. Advances in science will also bring higher standards of living, will lead to the prevention or cure of diseases, will promote conservation of our limited national resources, and will assure means of defense against aggression.

Vannevar Bush, Science The Endless Frontier

Bush’s ideas formed the basis of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which was the first step in providing continuous U.S. federal funding for the last 70 years.3 Today, scientists pursue funding for research by writing research proposals to any of a number of U.S. federal agencies, including the NSF, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Institute of Health (NIH), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Department of Defense (DOD). Depending on the particular rules of the grant opportunity, grants can be awarded for any length of time, from months to years or more and for any number of resources, including researchers, hardware, and software. Whether university/college faculty, employees of non-profit organizations, or employees of for-profit organizations, many scientists depend on government funding for a least a portion, if not all, of their annual funding in order to conduct basic scientific research.

Which brings us to the present, when government funded scientists spend a decent fraction of their time writing proposals to win funding in order to do research. Successfully completing their previous research is important, including publishing their results, but successfully winning funding can become far more vital to the survival of a scientific career. So a scientist combs through the announcement of opportunity, whether posted at the website of the NSF, the NIH, NASA, or elsewhere. She parses the instructions and the requests and then formulates a proposal outline that should satisfy those instructions and requests. Then the scientist tackles the toughest part of the proposal process: write a description and justification of a research project that has never been done before. Even though the research is brand new and thus a trip into the unknown, the funding agencies still want to know how you will manage the project to guarantee success and stay within budget. They want a schedule for something that has never been done before. This process is as difficult as it sounds, but the scientist must find a way to satisfy the proposal reviewers, both through research novelty and liklihood of success, because without this funding there will be no research at all.

This is the science funding process that I have now entered as a full-fledged PhD.4 Although I am funded, courtesy of a colleague, for two years, there is no time like the present to start acquiring my own funding. Since the success rates are so low for an individual proposal submitted to NASA, I have an incentive to start writing proposals as soon as possible and for as many programs as is reasonable. This strategy helps in two ways: one, this increases my odds, and, two, I get to learn about the proposal process while I still have the buffer of existing funding.5

And learn I did. First, there is the proposal process that needs to be learned, e.g. developing a budget and schedule, both the NASA process and the internal process of my institution. The latter is unique to each institution, so my experience working on instrument and spacecraft proposals as an engineer at the [NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)]) was not as transferable as I would have hoped. In addition to learning the proposal process, you also learn about the research that you are proposing. This is where proposal writing became fun.

I am a scientist not a writer, but I find that it is in writing that my work synthesizes into understanding. This understanding occurs both while writing journal papers and proposals. On each proposal, I discovered the questions I really wanted to ask and the methods I really needed to apply only when I began to put my fledgling ideas to paper (or, rather, LaTeX in my case). The process was fun, though stressful due to the looming deadline. In the end, if I win I will understand my project better, thereby increasing the quality of my research. If I lose I will understand my project better, thereby allowing me to write a better proposal in the future. Sort of a win-win, right? Right?

For now, I am glad to have my first two proposals under my belt and look forward to the next funding opportunity, which is November for me. In the mean time, it is back to day to day research, which means coding, simulations, and analysis. And thinking about the planets, which is always fun.

Post Script

Admittedly, I was pretty excited when I submitted my first proposal as PI. Being the PI of a research project represents a major milestone in being an independent scientist. This being the 21st century, I turned to Twitter to share the excitement:

Just submitted my first NASA proposal as Principle Investigator. #nobucksnobuckrogers Let’s see how this goes. #fingerscrossed

By the second proposal, two weeks later, I just wanted to get back to work:

Second PI proposal submitted. No more NASA proposals until Nov. so back to research. Now, where did I put that Titan weather model . . . ?

Novelty wears off so quickly.


  1. Many U.S. science agencies categorize the scientists working on a project into various groups. Most science teams include a single Principle Investigator (PI) who has ultimate responsibility for the science project and multiple Co-Investigators (Co-I) who support the PI in executing the science project. This organization is not completely universal, and you will see larger NASA missions where there may be instrument PI’s but a Project Scientist who oversee all of the PI’s and a Project Manager who has budgetary responsibility. For the kinds of scientific grants that I am discussing, the PI has scientific, budgetary, and schedule authority and responsibility. Though the size of the project is likely miniscule compared to a space misssion, being a PI of a science grant is still an important role.↩︎

  2. Bush, Vannevar (Ed.). (1945). Science: The Endless Frontier. United States Office of Scientific Research and Development. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office.↩︎

  3. This story deserves its own article, which I hope to get to in the future.↩︎

  4. I will also outline this process in a later article.↩︎

  5. What if I win funding this year, while I already have funding? The PI of my current funding will just move that money to another researcher and I will switch to the new project. There is no excess windfall for me nor anyone else.↩︎