Chapter 8 -- Grants, Research, and Foundations | Pierre van den Berghe

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Scholarly works frequently are, or at least ought to be, the end product of research. Not that lack of research activity stops many academics from publishing all the same; but nearly all types of writing produced by academics, with the exception perhaps of "creative" writing, presuppose some kind of research in the field, the library, or the laboratory. Until the late 19th century, research was done on a very limited budget. Only a handful of people in the "hard" sciences could raise money from their governments or private benefactors, and even then only insofar as there existed a reasonable prospect of their coming up with a useful invention like a vaccine, a better cotton gin, or a more lethal artillery shell.

Happily, the situation has greatly improved, especially in the last thirty years. Public and private milch cows vie with each other to keep their coteries of academic retainers and to lubricate the scholarly printing plants. A huge research establishment has sprung up side by side with the universities and created an extraordinarily complex network of ties with them. Private foundations have proliferated thanks to a tax structure that makes philanthropy painless if not positively rewarding. The government got into the act through the National Science Foundation, through the research branches of its military machine, and through lavish contracts with private research corporations and universities.

Tens of thousands of scholars shuttle back and forth on leave of absence between government agencies, foundations, and universities; tens of thousands more work in independent or corporate research organizations; and many more yet do contract research at universities under government or foundation grants. It is this last category that shall concern us most here.

Not all disciplines are in an equally good position to milk the government and foundations. By and large, the "harder" the discipline is (i.e., the greater its demonstrated ability to deliver goods that are of interest to nonacademics), the better established its claim to spend vast chunks of the common weal. Physicists, especially since their resounding success in atomic pyrotechnics, have done best, followed by chemists, engineers, physicians, biologists, economists, psychologists, sociologists, and "educationists." The humanities have trailed far behind, but even they are now learning to dip their fingers into the pie.

There are a few odd cases that do not fit neatly into this continuum of grantability. For example, archeology, one of the softest and most gratuitous of sciences, has managed to develop around itself such a romantic aura as to attract substantial subsidies to unearth tons of pottery shards. The poorer a country is in terms of its present social conditions, the more eager it is to pay archeologists to dig up the glories of its past. Perhaps archeologists also know how to exploit statesmen's desire for immortality.

Conversely, mathematicians, although very hard, have a difficult time in convincing foundations that they need a lot of money since their end product is purely a figment of their imaginations. Now, fortunately, they are able to link their cogitations with expensive computer programs. And astronomy, one of the most exact of sciences, does not approach the ability of physicists to deliver the goods, and hence got a relatively modest share of research funds until the space program started boosting them in orbit. On the whole, however, natural scientists do best; social scientists are poor seconds; and humanists lag behind all others.

How has this academic raid on the public and corporate purse been organized? Basically, by creating the concept of "big research" as the necessary adjunct to "big government" and "big business." The old concept of the lone (and often self-taught) scientist making great discoveries in his cellar with twenty dollars' worth of products from the corner pharmacy, or a litter of mice from the pet shop, is hopelessly ridiculed as outdated. Today, Pasteur and Edison would be pitiable amateurs worthy at best of the Science Club at some provincial high school, and Marie Curie might perhaps just make it on the teaching staff, with a postgraduate refresher course at the State University.

Any worthwhile research, it is argued, must be a collaborative venture conducted by properly accredited scientists having access to the latest equipment. Specialization is so advanced that no man can have an adequate overview of a broad field, hence the need for team work and interdisciplinary research. Imagination counts for little, and method for much. Flashes of insight are to be mistrusted, and computers relied upon to hit on at least some pay dirt, if only because of their ability to dig up such vast quantities of rubbish. In fact, by chance alone, some five percent of your tests will be statistically "significant" at the .05 level.

In the bad old days, when calculations had to be done with simple little desk machines or slide rules, when graduate assistants were scarce and resources limited it paid to do some hard thinking, to develop sensible hypotheses, and to design well-controlled experiments. Today, when computers can intercorrelate hundreds of variables in seconds, hard thinking becomes redundant, indeed a hindrance to scientific progress. All you have to do is throw into the salad bowl anything that could conceivably be relevant to your vaguely formulated problem, dump this intellectual potpourri in the lap of a resentful computer programmer, browbeat him into doing what little thinking he can do for you, and wait for the "printout" to zigzag its way out of the gargantuan machine. The computer is a substitute for rigor and parsimony.

Research grants serve many useful and lucrative functions. They allow you to buy off half or more of your time from teaching, getting the latter down to two or three hours a week. They make it possible to attract and hire some of the best graduate students whose brains you can pick, with or without acknowledgement, in your research. Research grants can buy you secretarial assistance; in fact, short of being department chairman, grants are the only way to get a secretary all to yourself. Through research grants (which include 15 or more percent overhead expenses given to the host university), you can commandeer a disproportionate amount of office and laboratory space.

In addition to paying part of your basic salary, grants will typically also give you an extra two months of summer salary. You can finance numerous jaunts to domestic and international conferences out of your research money without having to beg your university for it or having to justify your trip by reading a paper. And, if your research calls for going overseas, you can lead the life of an oriental potentate with an American income in a low-cost-of-living country. Should you remain an expatriate for eighteen months or more, you even get a $20,000[Editor's Note: $122,000, in 2015]-a-year income tax exemption for waving the star-spangled banner from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.

The disadvantage of getting a research position in somebody else's institute has already been mentioned. The most advantageous course of action is to apply for a research grant of which you become the principal investigator while at the same time retaining your regular teaching, or rather, by now, your nearly nonteaching, post. Of course, research grants are not gotten for the asking. The successful applicant must show a number of qualities of which the principal one is probably intellectual dishonesty. This is especially true in the social sciences. This requisite dishonesty finds its purest expression in the formulation of the research proposal. To be successful, applications must not only follow certain routine procedures, meet deadlines, and be neatly filled out with the appropriate headings; they must also conform to certain fads, "standards," and prejudices which exist in the minds of the referees who evaluate the proposal and the committee that awards the grants.

Almost invariably, the scholars responsible for allocating research funds on behalf of government and foundations belong to the establishment of their profession and tend to have the qualities of organization men. They are frequently the more cautious and conservative of the well-established political cosmopolites---not the creative scholars who earn their reputation through the quality of their work, but the persistent schemers who push themselves into positions of influence in their professional associations. Such people then nominate each other and their likes, and constitute within each discipline a loose interlocking directorate of big wheels belonging to the committees that count.

In drafting· a research proposal, the primary concern should be to write it in such a way as to appear worthwhile to the evaluators rather than to give a candid description of what you intend or hope to accomplish; hence the need for dishonesty. Since intellectual dishonesty does not come easily to all academics, there is need for a few pointers:

1) Never give the impression that you do not know precisely what you want to do and how you are going to do it. This often involves dishonesty, because in the majority of cases you start a research project with only a general idea of what area you want to investigate and what methodology you want to use, and you have only a few hunches as to why you want to do it. Once you lay your hands on the money, you have a very wide degree of discretion how you actually spend it, but you will seldom if ever get money unless your proposal radiates serene self­confidence about what you propose to do.

2) Spell out in great detail your methodology and make it as quantitative and precise-looking as possible, even if you know (as you should if you have any experience in research) that unforeseeable contingencies will almost certainly force you to modify your plans. You may also know that the rigor and precision which your design exudes are quite specious, because your proposal does not take field conditions into account; but these qualms should never deter you from giving the impression of great accuracy.

3) Use the proper style---i.e., avoid the first person singular, and if you must refer to yourself, use the third person and speak of yourself as "the principal investigator." Better yet, use the passive voice profusely---e.g., employ such phrases as "it is proposed to," "it will be seen whether." In short, the style should combine the qualities of the bureaucratic and the scholarly jargon to which your judges are accustomed: it should be impersonal, ponderous, pedantic, inelegant (a split infinitive here and there will do wonders), and, most of all, incomprehensible to laymen. Sometimes the application form will request you to state briefly your problem in nontechnical terms, but this is a crude booby trap. If you comply and write in lucid prose, what you want to do will often appear so simple as not to be worthy of support.

4) Survey the literature and try to anticipate who might review your proposal; then do not fail to quote their works. Failing that, try to suggest who your referee should be by profusely quoting the works of those whom you would like to read your application. The latter approach can, of course, boomerang if your proposal is sent to the wrong person.

5) Follow the fads of the day in your discipline. This will give the impression that you are up-to-date and adventuresome. Follow the fashion in jargon, theoretical approach, and methodology. Avoid true imaginativeness because the old Whigs might define you as a crackpot, but through the clever verbal juggling of the "in" terms, create the illusion that creativity oozes out of every pore of your scalp.

6) Consult with foundation staff before filling out your application. Very often, they will give you the benefit of their experience and tell you what to say and how to say it in order to get your proposal through the various granting committees.

7) If the foundation you are applying to wants to believe that the research they are sponsoring is of some use to mankind, devote a couple of paragraphs to the practical or policy implications of your proposed research, even though you could not care less. At the same time, do not cast your project in too pedestrian terms, because many foundations want to support high-prestige, "pure" research, and not mere applied research. The precise formula to use should become apparent from foundation pamphlets, which, incidentally, are to be taken seriously, despite appearances to the contrary. Foundation executives are often the kind of persons who take an earnest view of themselves and their benefactors, and they are often authors of pamphlets explaining the aims of the foundation.

8) Pay careful attention to the budget part of the proposal, for it is an important one. A good budget must show two qualities: it must be both detailed and extravagant. A detailed budget shows that you have devoted some time to it. In this connection, avoid round figures which seem to be imprecise guesses. For example, do not state $1,000 [Editor's Note: $6,132, in 2015] for stationery and office supplies; instead say $975 [$5,979] or $1,025 [$6,285], even though those figures are totally arbitrary. As to the second condition, it might seem to the beginner in the art of scholarly mendicity that the more modest one's demands are, the more likely they are to be satisfied. This is a grave fallacy; the very opposite is true.

In America, where what Thorstein Veblen called the pecuniary standards of excellence loom so large, no scientist is held to be worth much if he does not spend vast sums on his research, or at least if he does not have the audacity to make preposterous demands. Cheap research is held almost by definition to be inferior research, and the scientific disciplines themselves are ordered on a prestige scale that correlates very closely with how expensive they are. A nuclear physicist on a cyclotron is worth many Byzantine historians whose only research tools are books, and whose main research expense is a round-trip tourist fare to Istanbul.

A second reason why the probability of getting a grant is directly related to the amount asked for is that foundations and government agencies have large sums to give out, and that the smaller the number of grants is, the less work. Why burden yourself with giving 200 grants of $10,000 [$61,000] when you can painlessly dispend 20 grants of $100,000 [$613,000]? The essential thing is that you demonstrate your ability to spend $2 million [$12,260,000] in a given period of time.

Nor are foundations deterred from giving large grants by the fact that, in many cases, the scientific returns are inversely related to funds expended. This is particularly true in the social sciences where the search for ways to inflate budgets has led scholars to complicated equipment of doubtful value, and to the massive use of computers, the sophistication of which has far outstripped the ability of social scientists to feed them with meaningful data.

There are numerous ways of inflating a research budget to get it more easily accepted. One can extend the time period, but most large grants are given for periods of three to five years, and this does not give one much flexibility. One can request a large staff of secretaries and assistants, but people have the serious disadvantage of requiring attention and supervision. One may run into the danger of becoming a mere administrator of a research organization, and of having no chance to do actual research and to publish. And publications, however trivial, are a precondition to getting further grants. Besides, salaries of ancillary personnel are fairly inelastic and do not allow for much padding.

Happily, there remain two items where the possibilities are virtually unlimited, namely equipment and computers. Even social scientists have become adept at making exorbitant demands for "small group laboratories," photographic and cinematographic equipment, tape recorders, and the like. Whole industries have developed to satisfy the extravagance of academic researchers.

In summary, the basic rules of successful grantsmanship are simple and quite like other types of merchandizing: Package your proposal in a way that will be attractive to the prospective donor, and put a high price tag on it so as to convince him that he is supporting excellence. A salable proposal should take approximately as much time to write as a journal article. It is also the most meretricious exercise in academia.

Do not be distressed, however, if your honesty and the quality of your work prevent you from getting research grants. Use your brain instead, and you will be surprised how good the results can be. Creativity, like love, cannot be purchased, and, like faith, it can still move mountains. You can do excellent research in many fields with little money. You can pretend to do research on no money at all. And remember that, in last analysis, your academic success depends not on whether you do research, but on whether you publish.

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