Part of becoming a scientist is learning how to ask for money. Even the best ideas need time and facilities to do the work, plus the scientist has to eat. My position at SwRI is one of “soft money,” which means that my position is soft unless I can bring in funding. Currently I’m paid as a post-doc, 100% covered by my bosses, but that is supposed to change before I can be promoted and if I want to stay more than a couple years.
The art of asking for money takes a lot of refinement. First you need a good idea. Second, NASA has to be soliciting good ideas. You write a proposal document that fulfills their requirements for ideas, technical management, budget, and formatting. You attach your CV and supporting documents of subcontracts, proof read five times, and submit the document to NASA.
Now the waiting begins. The program to which I submitted is the Mars Data Analysis Program or MDAP. Everyone who submits an MDAP does so on the same day, and we wait until a committee or review panel grades our proposals and then ranks them by strengths and alignment with NASA’s priorities.
In case you’re wondering, we’ve discovered layered deposits indicative of ancient sedimentation near the rim of Valles Marineris, the continental scale rift valley that could fit the Grand Canyon inside of it end to end hundreds of times over. My proposal aims to characterize these deposits with a suite of instruments and then compare them to other layers seen on Mars.
Why does this cost $260,000 you might ask? Well, only the smallest portion of that goes to my paycheck. The cost is divided over 3 years, and I share that with two of my co-investigators. Each investigator has to pay their institution overhead money, or money that keeps the organization running, pays the light and rent bills, pays our administrators, copiers, publication fees, vacation, and health benefits. Plus more. So, SwRI takes a large sum before any money gets to me. My co-investigators also pay significant quantities to their institutions. Out of the $260,000, I’ll get paid $39,000 spread out over three years, before taxes – if the grant is funded.
Which grants get funded? I’ll find out soon. As I mentioned, NASA puts together review panels to grade and rank the proposals it receives. If yours gets a good score and beats out 80-90% of the other submissions, then you get funded. I’ve never served on a review panel before, but I will get the opportunity soon. Unfortunately, I can’t say more because I’ve agreed to keep it confidential as this effects many people and their livelihoods. I will be able to talk about the experience, however, after it is done.