Early in my career, I had an "exploratory" grant that, although not large in $$, turned out to have an immense impact on my career because it allowed me to start a new project involving completely new research. I don't think I would have been funded by a standard grant for this research. I had no track record in this type of research, and would likely have been sliced and diced in review. A kind and optimistic program officer, however, gave me a chance.
I later went on to get standard grants for related research, published ~ 20 papers on the original study and research that branched off from it, and am now well established in this field.
Although that exploratory grant was successful, I have not sought to obtain other such grants. Lately, though, I have been thinking about making another attempt. Exploratory grants can be extremely important for early-career researchers, but can also be important for mid-career researchers who want to "explore" something new or a bit risky; i.e., research that may involve dangerous ideas.
NSF has long had programs for funding exploratory research. In its latest incarnation, one program has the annoying name EAGER, as in EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research. I think NSF's acronym-makers maybe should have kept working on that one.
EAGER grants are a way to fund exploratory research that is of course transformative (as are all NSF-funded projects) but that also could be designated as "high risk". The concept of "high risk" is still a bit murky to me, but NSF includes these items as possible elements of "high risk - high payoff" research:
- radically different approaches
- new expertise
- novel disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives
All of the items in this list could be appropriate for a standard proposal, but EAGER-funded research must be of the sort that would not be appropriate for a standard proposal.
It may well be, then, that "high risk" actually means "high risk of rejection by standard review processes". This is a very real risk for some research (and/or some PIs), so it is important that NSF has these programs, not because they circumvent peer- and panel-review, but because there should be a mechanism by which program officers can identify and fund intriguing ideas.
So why I am I contemplating "exploratory" funding possibilities now? An idea that some colleagues and I are working on would be rejected in a typical peer-review process; we know this for a fact. So maybe it shouldn't be funded for the various reasons that the reviewers mentioned? Maybe. Or maybe, as I prefer to believe, the reviewers were short-sighted.
I do not envy program officers who have to sort out things like this. Is this person proposing a crazy idea that shouldn't be funded or is it in fact a visionary approach involving awesomely transformative research?
I don't know, but I hope I get the chance to find out.
6 months ago