Ask any academic and they will tell you all about the joy that is the grant proposal. In fact, I expect you may find it hard to stop them…There are so many research grants out there, and since success rates are low and terms are short, part of your job is to become an expert on those grant proposals. There are some grants that want you to be bold, and some that want you to blur the boundaries. Some grants require you to go all-American, then others are best used to employ Russian citizens of average height. Then there are those grants that prefer you conduct interesting interdisciplinary international inter-institutional research, leaving you scratching your head. Life is so much more interesting with the grant proposal, it’s almost as good as American politics.
You may expect that in Canada, a place where around any election time you’d find relatively competent politicians arguing endlessly about the same old boring “issues”, with not a word uttered about their wardrobes (or family dramas, or bizarre rituals), even the joyful process of the grant proposal is somehow made dull. You’d be correct, of course.
In my field, and most of fields of fundamental physics research, the bulk of funding is provided by NSERC, the national science and engineering council of Canada, with smaller grants available from the provincial governments (unless you happen to work in British Columbia). Grants are typically given for a period of 5 years, and the grant application is fairly straightforward, including up to 5 pages in a research proposal, and one page of detailed budget. While there are some restrictions on spending the money, they are all reasonable ones (sadly, no shiny Jaguars, but do let me know if I missed something). Funding, at some level, is given to almost any beginning faculty member in a major research university. Painless and effortless, not so many things in life work so smoothly.
Turns out, things work well because of the hard work of the people in charge, who are by and large invisible. Every sub-field of physics has a grant selection committee, and once every three years we get to meet them, as they come to visit and hear our feedback, give us necessary information, and get to know us. Like all of the important infrastructure of academia, this is volunteer work, no reward is given for doing it, let alone doing it well. So, ever since moving to Canada, I have been increasingly aware of how lucky I am, and the reasons behind this.
Which is all a prelude to explaining why I could not find it in me to decline an invitation to become a member of the grant selection committee for my field (somewhat arcanely named “subatomic physics”). To be sure, there were many reasons not to do it. Among many other things, I am a reluctant decision maker, preferring to stay in a superposition of all options until it is absolutely necessary to collapse my wavefunction, even then looking with regret at all those greener branches, wishing I could interfere again with them…(alright, I’ll stop now).
In addition, I am also somewhat of a reluctant traveler, and this job requires some of it, starting this weekend. Frequent travel tends to disrupt the rhythm of things for me, and I miss my loved ones terribly. Though I had my share of jet setting and department hopping, and this mode of travel does have its charms, my preferred kind of travel these days involves usually long visits to one place, where I could pretend for a long while I am not really traveling. In fact, this is exactly what I intend to do in May, when I’ll find myself in Santa Barbara once again.
But, good manners and a strong super ego, developed years ago in civics classes somewhere on a different continent, made it impossible for me to refuse. As my first reward, I will spend next week touring Canada, like a minor rock star, spending five days in four cities (starting in Waterloo, where I hope to see all my good friends at the Perimeter Institute). I am looking forward to early morning sessions, watery coffee and unidentifiable sandwiches, possibly peppered with some interesting conversations, meeting old friends and making new ones. Blogging will probably be sporadic, or better said, continue to be sporadic.