Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Obama's New Deal for Academia

I will be honest upfront - things were really looking bad for us folks in academia (and pretty much everyone else too) in last few months. Well, they still are, but things are looking up with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the economic stimulus package) signed by President Obama on Feb 17.

In an email last semester, my PhD advisor actually had to send out a letter to the group (in addition to a pep talk during the regular group meetings) with encouraging words:

Dear group,

This (financial crisis) is a good opportunity to clarify and reinforce the positive things about our group. First of all, my primary concern is, and will continue to be, the welfare of my students. I will do anything (legally of course) and everything to keep your work going and with the best resources possible, and to help you make the most of your time here.

I know that situations like this can cause stress to rise and may lead to uncertainty among the group. First, I want to assure you that this will not fundamentally alter our ongoing research plans.

Secondly, it is obvious that the composition of our group is changing rapidly…mainly because of graduations. This is a good thing and it is normal. People are supposed to graduate and leave. So, there will be turnover in any organization. I wish that the group number were not fluctuating so largely, but that is only partially within my control. Grants get funded at unpredictable times, and about 5 years ago I had a lot of grants get funded all at once. I had a bunch of students join the group. Now those students (you know who you are) have finished or close to finishing.

The group size is small right now, and it’s going to get smaller temporarily, and this is intentional.

Let me explain:

In order to avoid this type of fluctuation in the future I have been attempting to take on only 1 student a year for the past two years. I have been writing only enough proposals to support this rate of growth (so I don’t have to take 3-4 people at once). So, this is part of a greater plan to provide more stability in the future.

Thirdly, about funding: Professors who have been in this business for 40 years (like the department chair) will tell you that they have never seen funding as tight as it is right now. So, writing only a few new proposals to grow the group 1 student per year is risky, which is why I was not planning originally to take on 2 this year. Another issue is that my current projects are non-overlapping –purely by chance – the main projects get renewed at the same time (January) each year. This means that at the end of the year I have to be careful – just like you do at the end of each month. So, if I look over your orders more carefully it is simply for this reason. It doesn’t mean that support for your project is going away and should not be a cause for your concern. I’ll take care of, and worry about, the funding. You guys (and gals) can worry about the research.

The quantity and quality of research output, and the type of job you get, and how long it takes you to graduate is rarely a direct function of the quantity or type of funding anyway. It is true! Some of the most highly-cited papers have come from poorly-funded research, not only in my group but in general throughout science. And some of the most well-funded work has produced few papers. I have other sources of funding to keep ideas afloat between big grants. It is not an impediment and I have always gotten the funding I sought.

When you go on a job interview, no one will ask how much funding your advisor had! What is important are the indicators of the quality and quantity of your work: how many papers, presentations and in what journals / conferences.

I am confident that our research is on the cutting edge and that each of your projects is going to lead you to an exciting career. For example, the number of citations of previous students’ work from my group is at an all-time high. It is among the highest of any associate professor at this university. My h-index is 20.

I will talk more about these things at our next group meeting, and until then my door is of course open to speak about this.


Prof X

Yesterday my postdoc advisor had the whole group summoned:

Congress had given federal granting agencies (NSF, NIH, DOE) stimulus money for colleges to spend. There are opportunities for us in getting some of that package money. I want to help Congress spend those money and I want each and everyone of you to come up with ideas by Friday on how to tack on our existing NSF, NIH and DOE grants with more funding.

Focus on the "near-term" and ready to start projects, as these are especially advantaged in this environment.

Government-Wide Timeline

All agencies are under significant pressure to begin distributing the funding in the stimulus bill to States, organizations, and individuals as quickly as possible. The overall timeline announced by the Administration for the next few months is:
• February 19, 2009: Federal Agencies to begin reporting their formula block grant awards.
• March 3, 2009: Federal Agencies to begin reporting uses of funds.
• May 3, 2009: Federal agencies to make performance plans publically available; to begin reporting on their allocations for entitlement programs.
• May 15, 2009: Detailed agency financial reports to become available.
• May 20, 2009: Federal agencies to begin reporting their competitive grants and contracts.
• July 15, 2009: Recipients of Federal funding to begin reporting on their use of funds.

In addition, the Office of Management and Budget has set targets for implementation of programs by the agencies. Individual agencies have additional deadlines; for example, NSF, NIST, and NASA have been directed to deliver a spending plan to Congress by April 18, 2009.

I live in exciting it helps that I am in involved in the development of new, clean, renewable energy sources, one of the hottest areas (pun unintended) of research right now.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Presidential namesake

One of the new grad students in my current group has the same last name as a former US president (from the 20th century, now deceased), although I am not sure if they are related. There might be a chance though, given that she attended the same highly selective university (for undergrad) as him, hailed from the same state, and that the surname is quite rare in this country.

No Secret Service agents hanging around though, and I doubt federal protection will cover the great-grandchildren.

Hmm...I will ask soon, once I get an opportunity to do so.

Edit (9.30pm): Turns out she is not.