Saturday, January 13, 2018

About grants: What is cost sharing?

In addition to science, I occasionally use this forum as a way to try to explain to students and the public how sponsored research works in academia.  Previously I wrote about the somewhat mysterious indirect costs.  This time I'd like to discuss cost sharing.

Cost sharing is what it sounds like - when researchers at a university propose a research project, and the funding agency or foundation wants to see the university kick in funding as well (beyond obvious things like the lab space where the investigators work).  Many grants, such as NSF single-investigator awards, expressly forbid explicit cost sharing.  That has certain virtues:  To some extent, it levels the playing field, so that particularly wealthy universities don't have an even larger advantage.  Agencies would all like to see their money leveraged as far as possible, and if cost sharing were unrestricted on grants, you could imagine a situation where wealthy institutions would effectively have an incentive to try to buy their way to grant success by offering big matching funds.   

In other programs, such as the NSF's major research instrumentation program, cost sharing is mandated, but the level is set at a fixed percentage of the total budget.  Similarly, some foundations make it known that they expect university matching at a certain percentage level.  While that might be a reach for some smaller, less-well-off universities when the budget is large, at least it's well-defined.    

Sometimes agencies try to finesse things, forbidding explicit cost sharing but still trying to get universities to invest "skin in the game".  For the NSF materials research science and engineering center program, for example, cost sharing is forbidden (in the sense that explicit promises of $N matching or institutional funding is not allowed), but proposals are required to include a discussion of "organizational commitment":  "Provide a description of the resources that the organization will provide to the project, should it be funded. Resources such as space, faculty release time, faculty and staff positions, capital equipment, access to existing facilities, collaborations, and support of outreach programs should be discussed, but not given as dollar equivalents.

"  First and foremost the science and broader impacts drive the merit review, but there's no question that an institution that happens to be investing synergistically with the topic of such a proposal would look good.

The big challenge for universities are grants where cost sharing is not forbidden, and no guidance is given about expectations.  There is a game theory dilemma at work, where institutions try to guess what level of cost sharing is really needed to be competitive.   

So where does the money for cost sharing come from on the university side?  Good question.  The details depend on the university.  Departments, deans, and the central administration typically have some financial resources that they can use to support cost sharing, but how these responsibilities get arranged and distributed varies.  

For the open-ended cost sharing situations, one question that comes up is, how much is too much?  As I'd discussed before, university administrations often argue that research is already a money-losing proposition, in the sense that the amount of indirect costs that they bring in does not actually come close to covering the true expenses of supporting the research enterprise.  That would argue in favor of minimizing cost sharing offers, except that schools really do want to land some of these awards.  (Clearly there are non-financial or indirect benefits to doing research, such as scholarly reputation, or universities would stop supporting that kind of work.)  It would be very interesting if someone would set up a rumor-mill-style site, so that institutions could share with peers roughly what they are offering up for certain programs - it would be revealing to see what it takes to be competitive.  

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Selected items

A few recent items that caught my eye:

  • The ever-creative McEuen and Cohen groups at Cornell worked together to make graphene-based origami widgets.   Access to the paper seems limited right now, but here is a link that has some of the figures.
  • Something else that the Cohen group has worked on in the past are complex fluids, such as colloidal suspensions.  The general statistical physics problem of large ensembles of interacting classical objects (e.g., maybe short-range rigid interactions, as in grains of sand, or perhaps M&Ms) is incredibly rich.  Sure, there are no quantum effects, but often you have to throw out the key simplifying assumption of statistical physics (that your system can readily explore all microscopic states compatible with overall constraints).  This can lead to some really weird effects, like dice packing themselves into an ordered array when stirred properly.  
  • When an ensemble of (relatively) hard classical objects really lock up collectively and start acting like a solid, that's called jamming.  It's still a very active subject of study, and is of huge industrial importance.  It also explains why mayonnaise gets much more viscous all of the sudden as egg yolk is added.
  • I'd be remiss if I didn't highlight a really nice article in Quanta about one of the grand challenges of (condensed matter) physics:  Classifying all possible thermodynamic phases of matter.   While the popular audience thinks of a handful of phases (solid, liquid, gas, maybe plasma), the physics perspective is broader, because of ideas about order and symmetries.  Now we understand more than ever before that we need to consider phases with different  topological properties as well.  Classification is not just "stamp collecting".

Monday, January 01, 2018

The new year and another arbitrary milestone

Happy new year to all!  I'm sure 2018 will bring some exciting developments in the discipline - at minimum, there will surely be a lot of talk about quantum computing.  I will attempt to post more often, and to work further on ways to bring condensed matter and nanoscale physics to a broader audience, though other responsibilities continue to make that a challenge.  Still, to modify a quote from Winston Churchill, "Writing a [blog] is like having a friend and companion at your side, to whom you can always turn for comfort and amusement, and whose society becomes more attractive as a new and widening field of interest is lighted in the mind."

By the way, this is the 1000th post on Nanoscale Views.  As we all know, this has special significance because 1000 is a big, round number.