What an ordeal, but it’s over now. I have ascended two snowy peaks that were long troubling my eastern horizon. Casting their chilly shadows at sunrise, glinting stubbornly as the sun set, and murmuring, “You’ll never do this, Bob; go find a nice round hill that’s more your speed.”
Damn it, a nice round hill is not my speed! When I walked the Hill of Tara, despite its fabulous history, I felt tired. When I walked the South Downs, with the Channel sparkling in the dips, I felt lost. I don’t find my meaning in soft, green, sun-dappled hills.
I don’t because they’re easy, and when something is easy, that generally means it’s customary. When something is customary, that means others — many others — have done and enjoyed it, are no longer thinking about it, are taking it in stride. That’s not my thing.
I don’t want to walk to my destination; I want to climb, and I want the climb to be difficult. I prefer forbidding peaks, shimmering in the white radiance of eternity, looming under a canopy of frozen, black cosmos. I prefer slopes that are practically vertical, factories of perilous scree, veneered with a thin layer of redoubtable ice covering rock that is rotten and patiently waiting, like a predator, for its next satisfying kill.
That captures the essence of my twin peaks. They are mountains of the mind rather than earth. In fact they are grant applications: one to the National Science Foundation, the other to the National Institutes of Health. Written in parallel, nearly suffocating me with stress. Why were these grant applications predatory?
Because they attract people like me, to come a little bit closer, to view a delectable feast, to find a comfortable seat at the banquet, only to discover that — oh no! — I’m on the menu. The table has been set, not for me, but for a coterie of peer reviewers, the gourmands of esoterica. To them, I’m not a climber making an inconceivable first ascent, but a contestant in a cooking show. I concoct my new recipes, source my rare ingredients, roast and plate my novel thinking and writing…
And then? Then the gourmands sniff it, nibble it, finger it, turn it in the light, contemplate it, and instantly judge it. Mostly their judgments are superficial and harsh, because peer review is a fast, furious, anonymous, and competitive business; neither leisurely, cordial, nor philosophical. It is as subtle and nuanced as a high-stakes horse race: years in the making, thundering out of the gate, over in a few minutes.
However, in a small fraction of reviews, the peers are impressed, their judgements are profound, or at least have profound implications. And that is why these grant applications are worthy endeavors. They are hard and the probability of success is vanishing. Who could ask for anything more?
What makes an application hard? To begin with, it’s “the ask.” The NSF publishes their ask in document called the Solicitation. The NIH publishes their ask in a document called the Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA). These documents can be hard to find for the uninitiated, but once found, they are seriously hard to read and interpret. Each is supported by hundreds of pages of PAPPG (NSF) and Applications Instructions (NIH).
Why so labor intensive? A hint of passive aggression at the agencies? Don’t be ridiculous! The ask is hard because it’s written for myriad climbers, each of whose routes and peaks are quite awesomely different. One document guides thousands of different aspirants, so it is inevitably confusing to each of them. Many applicants hire a professional Chingachgook, for a hefty fee, to show them how to plan a route and provision their expedition. I didn’t. After all I trained as a textual scholar back in the Jurassic period, so I know how to parse a damned sentence, even if it’s written by a cabal of technocrats.
Reading the Solicitation and FOA, with accompanying instructions, is followed by writing, which in my case is more aptly described as nit-picking. I rewrote my Project Description (NSF) and Research Strategy (NIH) maybe 400 times. Before getting to the summit, I felt dead certain I would fall off the mountain and end up lying in a ditch.
After writing and nit-picking, the last traverse of the perilous journey is a portal for submitting an application online. NSF has Fastlane and NIH has ASSIST. These portals are supported by, and dependent on, other portals including Research.gov, Grants.gov, eRA Commons, and NCBI. Writing in them is comparable to digging your ice pick and crampons into the aforementioned veneer. As often as not, you fly off the pitch and have to call the HelpDesk to pull you back up.
I cannot say enough good things about the HelpDesk. Nicer, more patient, more helpful people than the telephone agents do not exist, of that I feel sure. If you are one of the livestock who’s been oinking about the “deep state,” I have a suggestion for you. Go write a grant application to fund your nutty worldview. Like most others, you may not be funded, but the experience will fill you with tenderness and respect for the gracious civil servants on a HelpDesk, and for the agency that employs them, and for the state that makes it all possible.
“I always take the same perspective with each new adventure. I put myself in the position of being at the end of my life looking back. Then I ask myself if what I am doing is important to me.” Reinhold Messner