Call For Articles Crossroads Interdisciplinary Computer Science

December 29th, 2011


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You mention the qietsuon of how NSF should allocate a fixed amount of funding among small, medium, and large/center-scale projects.My opinions: NSF is spending a lot of money on large/center-scale projects that I suspect might be better spent on smaller grants.I believe the reviewing process for large/center-scale projects is not great. You get the same 12-15 pages to describe your ideas for a ten-million dollar center as for a several-hundred-thousand small grant. Reviewing for center-scale grants seems to depend a lot more on non-substantive factors, e.g., can you spin the idea really well, are you a really good grant-writer (rather than a good scientist), are the people involved famous, and so on. The reviews on a $10M center-scale grant is not 20x as rigorous as the reviews on a $500K small grant; if anything, the reviews on the small grant tend to be more rigorous on the technical details, in my experience. And for large centers with many participants across many institutions, conflict-of-interest considerations not infrequently rule out most of the best experts in the field, leaving center review panels with people of lesser quality than you'd see on review panels for small grants.My sense is that if NSF spends $10 million on a single center, odds are that a good fraction of the work will be of inferior quality to what they could have gotten if they had funded 20 $500K grants. Why? My guess: centers get a big pot of money, then the center redistributes that money internally among their own members, and the methods that centers use to allocate money internally are less rigorous and less merit-based than the methods that NSF uses to review proposals for small grants. My impression is that it is not unusual for inter-personal and inter-institutional politics to play a non-trivial role in center internal allocation processes. Conflicts of interest that would never be tolerated when reviewing a small grant proposal appear to be routine in many centers' internal funding process.Don't get me wrong. I've been on centers that I think have been very positive and where I think NSF's investment led to tremendous returns. However I've also seen some more dubious cases. My impression is that the variation in quality among center-scale grants is noticeably higher.I've sometimes wondered why the NSF spends so much money on large centers, when overall funding rates are so low (are they still in the single digits?). I wonder if centers have the benefit that they're easy to explain to Congress in a sound bite, whereas it's harder to explain 20 disparate unrelated small grants in a sound bite. Perhaps I'm being too cynical.... Alternatively, maybe the issue is that support for centers comes from a different pot of money, and it's not easy to shift money around between categories?I realize this comment may sound like sour grapes. It's not intended that way. I've been generously funded through both small and large grants, and I'm extraordinarily grateful for the level of support the NSF has provided. The NSF is a fantastic institution. I've probably received more than my fair share of funding from large and center-scale efforts, so this is not bitterness about the level of funding I've personally received. My comments are intended in the spirit of examining what allocation of money leads to the best science overall, given a fixed amount of money.


Every time I go to my local Uni library and walk tghuorh the stacks I shake my head. There are practically three shelf segments (150 feet of shelf) stuffed full of conference proceedings on IP QoS, yet, nothing practical has come out of this research for 30 years.I can think of many areas in computing that could transform industries, transform society, that are "redlined" so far as CS funding is concerned. I worked on a project that transformed scientific publishing that struggled to put together $250K of "soft money" financing; in the same building there was a project that burned $2M of funding on a web site that never found an audience and a stream of mediocre conference papers.For instance, semantic technology is starting to break into commercialization and it looks like Europe, for once, might have the jump on the US. At an "afterparty" to the International Semantic Web Conference that was held in Washington, DC last year, I didn't encounter a single American computer scientist: I met entrepreneurs, physicists and unemployed digital librarians, but nobody in "CS".I see that computer science is where physics was in 1968. I sit in the back at CS "job talks" at my local Uni with a single minded focus on the commercialization of technology. I see PhD students who are looking for permanent jobs in academia or who are looking for research jobs at just a handful of large paternal companies (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, IBM.)That's the way it was in physics when the need for professors was rapidly expanding, and when large industrial labs offered desirable jobs in research. By 1970, this situation broke, and physics PhDs found themselves driving cabs in NYC. The job market in physics has been moribund ever since; today the only reliable way get a professorship in physics is to (i) have a parent who is a professor and/or (ii) be an affirmative action case -- preferably both.The fact that the postdoc institution is diffusing from rapidly physics into CS is slowing the realization of the pain in computer science, but ten years from now, when a bunch of people realize they're almost 40 and have built no equity in their careers, it will start to dawn on people.


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