Monday, September 10, 2007

A word from our sponsors (I)

With the MIT tuition bill arriving, our IBMish paper being accepted to SODA, and Michael running a similar series, I figured it was high time to speak about money and sponsors.

I am pleased to announce that Erik and I sold our soul to Google this year, and in return won a Google Research Award. Our grant proposal was on "Fundamental Data Structures". If this didn't scare Google, they must be pretty open to foundational research, and any myth to the contrary seems outdated :)

Our proposal consisted of a list of some papers we wrote (together and separately), with a 3-line summary for each. We worked quite a bit on putting together the list, with the goal to extract an exclamation from any reader at one point or another. As usual, Erik is the perfect co-writer for any piece of text (it's a pity he won't do blogging...).

The same team (Erik as PI, and yours truly as "Senior Researcher") tried a similar stunt with NSF (different topic though), without success. The comments were a maximal set of strong and contradictory statements from a couple of panels.

My favorites (yes, I know you don't usually make this list public):

  • This is a very well-written proposal.
  • My tendency is to recommend not to fund this proposal in order that the PIs write it better.
  • Even the most optimistic progress will only [..] have little practical application.
  • This is a highly important research direction that [..] will allow to develop more practically feasible geometric algorithms.
  • What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity? None!
  • Faster algorithms [..] might be much faster in practice. In fact, I believe that such improvements might lead to more practical and realistic algorithms.
My general modus operandi is to challenge people, make them think again, and push them to reevaluate their holiest convictions. Polarizing the audience is a clear sign of success. Thus, this seems like a decently successful proposal, with the obvious drawback of not getting funded. I leave the last word to another reviewer comment, which summarizes our approach to writing this grant:
  • Very strong proposal - it's definitely not "more of the same" like many other proposals.


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on the award.

My tendency is to recommend not to fund this proposal in order that the PIs write it better.

In other words, content is fine, presentation isn't. Its fitting that the grant got rejected, for what is science about if not form over content..... NOT!

It is common for NSF to reject solid, scientifically worthwhile research proposals on the basis of a few mangled sentences. In fact it so common that people no longer complain about it. They just hire full time people to write, rewrite and parse every sentence to death. Since NSF reviewers are ourselves we have no one to blame but ourselves.

David Molnar said...

The broader impacts in the NSF sense refers to things like impact on education, public interest in science, etc. - is that right? If so, the reviewer that dinged you for no broader impacts may need some hand-holding about why better algorithms are a better thing for society at large. Actually, I may need some hand-holding too...what did you say about that as part of your proposal, if anything?