Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Gray Matters

Whenever I write a post with "gray" in the title, some people think I am going to talk about hair, but no -- to me, "gray" signifies the mythical "gray zone" in which your grant proposal is neither awarded nor declined.. yet.

I have been talking to various colleagues recently, as some of us await decisions about various proposals. I recently got one grant for which I am very grateful because the science is going to be very cool and the grant will help support a new graduate student. I am, however, in limbo about another proposal that I submitted quite a long time ago, long before the grant that was just awarded. I expected to hear by now, but I have not.

How do I know I am in a gray zone and not just impatient or delusional?

My own personal definition of the phenomenon of being in the gray zone is a situation in which others who submitted to the same program have already received word that their proposals were awarded or declined, but others have not heard yet. If some already know about their proposals and I don't know anything yet, my proposal is in a gray zone.

I know that such regions of the grantosphere exist because I have been in the gray zone before. Sometimes I emerge with a grant, sometimes I don't.

Obviously being in the gray zone is not as good as getting the grant funded right away and not as bad as being definitively rejected, but is there any point in being hopeful whilst waiting to hear from NSF?

Colleague #1 says there is no hope, there is no gray zone, and anyone who hasn't heard yet isn't going to get the grant. There's probably just some administrative reason why the official "We regret that.." e-mail can't be sent out yet.

Colleague #2 says that we have hope, there is a gray zone, and perhaps the program officers are trying to find a way to fund our proposal.

I veer between these points of views every 12 minutes, but I tend to agree more with Colleague 2. Now I just have to decide whether to contact the program officers and see if they have any information for me now, good or bad, or whether I want to continue to wait and hope for the best.

If you have been in a gray zone with a proposal, did you contact a program officer to extract information because the waiting was too agonizing, or did you just wait (and wait) because you'd rather live with the hope of getting the grant than hasten your knowledge of the rejection?

35 comments:

Susan B. Anthony said...

There is hope! A colleague and I were in a gray zone for months because our proposal was deemed sufficiently "interdisciplinary" (within an already rather narrow subfield of Science) that it got sent to two different review panels. We contacted the program officer, he told us to be patient, and we eventually got the grant.

I think there's rarely a downside to contacting the program officer (though one doesn't want to harass him or her, of course). In my experience they are generally very friendly and helpful, and view their job in a positive way (helping worthy proposals get funded) rather than a negative one (rejecting people).

ScienceSmooches said...

My Advisor was in a gray zone. His colleague's grant was reviewed at the same time in the same agency. His colleague received word looong before my advisor that he he had received the grant. My advisor assumed this meant he wasn't getting it. However, a week ago, he was awarded the grant. So, totally possible! This was NSF.

GMP said...

I think it would be good to know which agency you have in mind. The following I think holds for DOD and DOE and NSF to some degree. I believe there definitely is a gray area, as there is a set of proposals that the program manager may want to fund and has to go champion them to a higher agency authority. Not all of them will get funded, although they all have reviewed well and are programmatically adequate (the PM likes them). From this point on it has to do with fiscal year budget, anticipated shortages or delays, the PM's standing within the division, etc.

I have no idea if probing the PM influences the outcome; I am hoping not. I suppose it may be that he/she is not on top of all the rejection notifications, so if you contact him/her you'll find out sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, I tend to agree that if everyone has received their declination already, your news are likely bad too...

Anonymous said...

NSF has been incredibly slow about notifications this year....I'd like to think because there's a bit more money to hand out and therefore a backlog of work. I finally emailed the program officer after waiting 8 months with no info to learn that, yes, I would be awarded the grant "soon". The award recommendation was then held up for TWO MONTHS! by co-PIs with overdue annual reports for other awards (those reports aren't that difficult to complete, people) followed by another month waiting for the official award notification. The grant was finally awarded 11 months after I submitted it... Glad for the funding but this wait has really impeded research progress.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

(1) Gray zones exist, because the finances of funding entities like NSF and the various NIH Institutes are very complex and they often don't know how much money they have left to spend at the end of the fiscal year until right at the end.

(2) The first time I was in a gray zone, I was all anxious and kept bugging my program officer, and he was all like, "Dude, if I knew anything more definitive, I'd tell you." I have learned from that experience and others that program officers want nothing more than to be definitive. If you aren't hearing anything definitive, it's because there is nothing definitive to tell you, and you are still in play for possible funding. Corollary to this, is that nowadays I just sit tight and wait to hear something, feeling both hopeful and resigned to the prospect of not getting funding.

Anonymous said...

I was in the gray zone with my CAREER proposal... other people from my same submission had heard no's, most other programs had announced both yes and no, and still I waited - about 2 extra months.

Finally talked to the program officer who was recently appointed and found out they were in progress of making final decisions (meaning I was still in running).. at the end, I got a yes and a colleague down the hall got a no about a month later - meaning we were in the gray zone together and it can go either way.

NIH is much more humane - you get a score (or don't for most of us) and based on that score you know if you are likely to get funding or on the bubble - you still have to wait awhile to get an actual answer, but they stick to their timelines much better than NSF appears to. And you at least have an idea of what's coming so you can start planning either way.

Anonymous said...

My advisor and I were just in this same position with our grant. He ended up contacting the program officer and finding out that the proposal was rated highly. He took this to mean that we're most likely getting the money. I say, contact the program officer. Hopefully, they can at least give you some peace of mine.

Anonymous said...

If you have already received a grant after being in the grey zone, doesn't that mean that colleague #1 is already definitely wrong?

Anyhow, a grant I was involved in was in the grey zone as you define it. Several colleagues from the same NSF section had found out they either had or had not gotten their grant months before we found out. And, we came out on the happy end of it! I'd say there is definitely hope.

Anonymous said...

I've done both. I think you should contact your program officer. She/he won't pull funding because you asked, and it's better to know than not know, right? Even if the result is that they tell you they are hoping to have enough funds to fund you, but they aren't sure about that yet. A friend of mine felt like she was in the gray zone too, so earlier this week she called to find out. She is funded for the next five years. CALL!

Anonymous said...

I am in a gray zone with a proposal submitted...10 months ago. I emailed the program officer who told me it will be recommended for funding (YAY!), but because of some budget issue it will have to wait until after the summer.
So I think it is worth contacting them. In the worst case scenario, they tell you you won't be funded and you stop wondering and move on to thinking about the resubmission

Female Genetics Professor said...

I have little experience with NSF, but for NIH grant applications, I have always kept in touch with program officers. They have some influence over which applications on the "borderline" actually get funded, and it usually doesn't hurt to make your case with them. Of course, it's important not to annoy them by calling incessantly.

Anonymous said...

I am in a similar situation with NIH. I did ask program officer but didn't get clear reply, so the uncertainty continues...

John V said...

We're scientists. We always prefer to know over guessing. For one thing, we need to plan budgets.

I always ask if I think decisions have already been made, unless I'm too busy to write a 2-sentence email.

Anonymous said...

I was recently in the gray zone with a proposal that was ultimately declined - 8.5 months after submission to NSF. After the 6 month target date, we contacted the program officer and were told there were 96 proposals submitted and they'd be funding about 5. She did not say ours was declined, nor did she say it was still on the table.

We later found out (after the official 'decline' letter FINALLY arrived) that our proposal missed the cut by 1. Kind of like getting 4th place at the Olympics, but also very encouraging for resubmission. Not bad for the first time we submitted it. Makes me wonder if the ones that were funded were resubmissions or first timers...

Anonymous said...

the gray area happened once for a grant I was a collaborator. We waited...then eventually found out despite a quite good score the grant was not funded. We later found out that it was very well received--perhaps we were the cut-off and they were waiting to see if any extra money popped up?

Anonymous said...

I contacted after 9 months in the gray zone and found out that your colleague #2 was exactly right and we were funded shortly thereafter. The program manager was working with epscor to get us fully funded and epscor doesn't work as quickly as NSF regular program managers do, which caused the delays. The official award came 1 year after submission.

Kevin said...

Waited a long time, then asked. They decided almost immediately to reject the grant. I suspect that they had decided a year earlier to reject it, and just hadn't been competent enough to do their own paperwork. It made me a bit angry, since I could have modified and resubmitted the grant if they had told me in a timely fashion, but their delay put a 2-year delay in the reapplication process (annual cycle). I ended up doing some of the work unfunded and giving up on the rest.

Anonymous said...

It depended on the agency. NSF - no. ONR - yes. I haven't been at this very long, but all of NSF gray zone proposals have ended up not getting funded, but my ONR ones have. And NSF seems to discourage contact with the PD's anyway - or at least the PD's seem to have less control. (Although, maybe I've had more success with ONR is because I've contacted the PM's...)

Anonymous said...

I know I was in the 'grey' zone with my CAREER proposal because I didn't have news for several weeks after some colleagues had been already rejected or awarded the grant. One senior faculty in my department that had sat in the panel told me later that my proposal was in fact in that grey area that depends on how much the program manager can stretch funding. My proposal ended being funded after another program pitched in some money.

CaptainWeather said...

Your web traffic may tick up after the Chronicle of Higher Ed piece (6/18/10) I just read.

I am a male interdisciplinary studies full professor at a small college, and because I have a Y chromosome, will never, ever be given a named chair by our president -- those go only to females. I have received numerous national and international honors, so I take the local neglect only as a sign of political correctness by our president.

Trabor said...

Hey CaptainWeather, maybe you never got a named chair because you are prone to dropping non sequiturs.

I've experienced the dreaded gray zone twice, both times with the same PO. Once, it ended with a rejection, just ten days before the next target deadline. I was annoyed about this one because it was obvious from the comments that it was never going to be funded, so there was no reason to sit on it. Nevertheless, we dropped everything and got it resubmitted, only to see it drop into the gray zone again. That time it reviewed very strongly, with the same PO, and got funded.

I always assume the worst, and then call the PO only when I absolutely need to know.

Anonymous said...

I am a PM now and I hate when people call/email me about their proposals. I usually tell them "it is not looking good for now" without even looking at their file. When I am finished I will let you know!

AnnMaria said...

I have had it four ways.

1. Called PM and was told that if we had been funded we would have heard by now.

2. Waited and waited and eventually found we didn't get it.

3. Waited and waited and eventually found we did get it.

4. Called PM and was told they had not decided yet, and later found we did get it.

Anonymous said...

The status of my proposal at NSF changed to "Pending" in Fastlane, and my program manager still could not confirm that I would be getting the funds. I was going up for reappointment, which was why I wanted the confirmation. The "Pending" status comes with a disclaimer saying that there is no guarantee that you will receive funding. In the end, I did receive the money and the status changed to "Awarded." I didn't actually get any notice from NSF...if I hadn't been checking Fastlane, I would have never known until the money showed up at the university. I wasn't surprised at how tight-lipped the program manager was. Colleagues have told me similar stories.

Anonymous said...

ahh. I've been in the gray zone, I think, or maybe it was just my impression. I emailed my program officer at NSF to see when a decision was expected on my grant, so that i could think about resubmitting if needed. He said that decision had been made, and they would contact people soon. I freaked out, and started revising the proposal. After a few agonizing day, i got the yes.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 6:05

The status of my proposal at NSF changed to "Pending" in Fastlane, and my program manager still could not confirm that I would be getting the funds.

I believe the status is "Pending" pretty much from the minute it has been assigned to a program director. It stays "Pending" for months. I don't think it's an indication that a decision has been or will shortly be made.

Anonymous said...

i am in the gray zone RIGHT NOW myself. My colleague at another institution heard back negatively something like 3 weeks ago and I've heard nothing. Limbolimbolimbo........

EliRabett said...

The key to understanding about the gray zone is knowing what the budget situation at the agency in question is. There have been lots of times when the budget has not yet been approved by Congress, when it has been approved but has no worked it's way down to the programs, etc. where there is hope.

Anonymous said...

"The status of my proposal at NSF changed to "Pending" in Fastlane, and my program manager still could not confirm that I would be getting the funds."

Sorry, I don't know what I was thinking. I meant to say that the status was changed from "pending" to "recommended," but the program manager would not confirm the award. About a month later, the status was changed to "awarded," and the institution received the funds.

Kevin M. Folta said...

Excellent post. I'm ALWAYS in the Gray Zone. Always. I think it is because we have innovative ideas that resonate well with some but are open to criticism and easily shot down. It puts a panel manager or panel in a position where they have to make a decision on what is a safe, certain investment vs. what is maybe going to shift the landscape. Personally, I like the latter.


If you find yourself in science funding purgatory rejoice! With 10% funding rates you are at least pretty close to the top. With the talent pool of applicants and solid proposals coming back year after year, that ain't bad!

Anonymous said...

Good to see other people share the similar feelings when in the gray zone. I am in the gray zone for my very first grant (possibly the last lifeline).

Contacted the PM, and the response was that mine is in the queue, but it is long.
My dilemma is whether to prepare for a career submission this coming july... would suck if I only get the rejection two days before the career is due...

Anonymous said...

I am in the gray zone with the NSF as well. I emailed the Program Manager and got a cryptic "process is held up due to internal reasons and will get a decision as soon as possible". The trouble is that if the proposal is declined, then I will end up with no time to resubmit before the next cycle deadline. In this age of slim funding odds, not having a proposal in the hopper at every cycle spells doom for the new PI.

Annaelle said...

So... did you get it?
I am in the same shoes....

Female Science Professor said...

No, alas, BUT the program officer said "You should definitely resubmit this." He is either being very encouraging or very cruel. I choose to believe the former because, without a good dose of delusion, I would never submit any proposals at all. I hope you have better luck with your current gray situation.

Annaelle said...

Nooo...
that's discouraging.
In our case, everybody has heard everything. We contacted the PM, he said two weeks ago that ours was one of the VERY FEW still pending.
Yet no word...
I am losing hope here...