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Ken Bloom | USLHC | USA

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Deadline day

Did you see any physics professors who looked both tired and relieved today? It could be that they had just submitted their grant proposal to the National Science Foundation in advance of this afternoon’s deadline. The Division of Physics in NSF, which includes Experimental Particle Physics, does one round of proposal review a year, and proposals are always due on the last Wednesday in September, which was today. The EPP program provides so-called “base” funding for many university research groups that work at the LHC, including mine, and that meant that today I and my colleagues were submitting a proposal for grant funding for the next three years.

Writing funding proposals is arguably the most important thing that I do as a professor. Our particle physics group at Nebraska, which is led by five professors, currently employs five graduate students and six postdoctoral researchers. Our NSF grant pays these people their (admittedly modest) salaries, and we must make sure that we get our funding to ensure that our young physicists, all of whom are doing work that is important for the success of our experiments, remain in our employ. Without this funding, it would be hard for us to carry out any research at all. Student tuition and stipends and postdoc salaries are in fact by far the largest component of our grant budget; these grants ultimately go towards the education and training of the next generation of leaders of our field. Travel expenses are another major component; it’s not cheap to get to CERN.

It is worth mentioning here that the NSF is one of the sponsors of this very Web site. I’m really quite grateful for their support, and I always try to remain aware that it is the hard-earned tax dollars of people who live and work in the United States that are supporting our work.

Writing these proposals is not easy! The NSF has some very specific rules on how proposals are to be written. Not conforming to the guidelines can lead to the immediate rejection of a proposal without review, so you need to observe them very carefully. The main body of the proposal is limited to fifteen pages of text. This limit is in place to keep the review process manageable; as a reviewer, I sure don’t want to have to read too much. But this means that we are trying to describe the past and proposed future activities of a sixteen-person research group in that fifteen pages, and it is a huge challenge to do that concisely while still conveying just what it is that you are doing. A more local challenge is actually coordinating the writing efforts of five professors. I quarterbacked our proposal this time, and I had to be very aware of how different colleagues had different, um, attitudes about deadlines.

But once we had pulled all the text together, and organized all the supporting documents, and worked out all the technicalities of the budget with the university accountants, I was able to read through the proposal and really be proud of how much our group is doing, and how much we think we can do over the next three years. You don’t always get that perspective in your day-to-day work, so it is refreshing to look at the big picture now and then. Will the peer reviewers of the proposal see it the same way? I’ll let you know sometime in the spring.

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