Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Advice on proposal writing

Many many people have written about how to write scientific grant proposals, and much of that advice is already online.   Rather than duplicate that work, and recognizing that sometimes different people need to hear advice in particular language, I want to link to some examples.

  • Here (pdf) is some advice straight from the National Science Foundation about how to write a compelling proposal.  It's older (2004) and a bit out of date, but the main points are foundational.
  • This is a very good collection of advice that has been updated (2015) to reflect current practice about NSF.  
  • Here are lecture notes from a course at Illinois that touched on this as well, generalizing beyond the NSF.
Fundamentally, sponsored academic research is an odd thing.  You are trying to convince an agency or foundation with finite (often very finite) resources that allocating some of their precious support to you will be a good thing.  Limiting the conversation to the often ill-named "basic research" (see here and the book therein for a discussion of "basic" vs "applied"), this means work where the primary products of the research are (i) fundamental advances in our understanding of some system or phenomena; (ii) personnel trained in scientific/engineering/research knowledge and skills; (iii) scholarly publications (and/or patents for more technology-focused topics) that report the results, with the intent of propagating the work to the community and having an impact. 

This last one has taken a pre-eminent position of importance because it's something that can be readily counted and measured.  There is a rough rule that many program officers in NSF and DOE will tell you; averaging over their programs, they get roughly one high impact paper per $100K total cost.  They would like more, of course. 

Talk with program officers before writing and submitting - know the audience.  Program officers (including foundational ones) tend to take real pride in their portfolios.  Everyone likes funding successful, high-impact, exciting, trend-setting work.  Still, particular program officers have areas of emphasis, in part so that there is not duplication of effort or support within an agency or across agencies.  (This is especially true in areas like high energy theory, where if you've got DOE funding, you essentially can't get NSF support, and vice versa.)  You will be wasting your time if you submit to the wrong program or pitch your idea to the wrong reviewing audience.   NSF takes a strong line that their research directions are broadly set by the researchers themselves, via their deep peer review process (mail-in reviews, in-person or virtual panel discussions) and workshops that define programmatic goals.  DOE likewise has workshops to help define major challenges and open questions, though my sense is that the department takes a more active role in delineating priorities.   The DOD is more goal-directed, with program officers having a great deal of sway on topics of interest, and the prospect that such research may transition closer to technology-readiness.  Foundations are idiosyncratic, but a common refrain is that they prefer to fund topics that are not already supported by federal agencies.

Think it through, and think like a referee.  When coming up with an idea, do your best to consider in some detail how you would actually pull this off.  How could you tell if it works?  What would the implications be of success?  What are the likely challenges and barriers?  If some step doesn't go as planned, is it a show-stopper, or are their other ways to go?  As an experimentalist:  Do you have the tools you need to do this?  How big a signal are you trying to detect?   Remember, referees are frequently asked to evaluate strengths and weaknesses of technical approach.  Better to have this in mind while at an early stage of the process.

Clearly state the problem, and explain the proposal's organization.  Reviewers might be asked to read several proposals in a short timeframe.  It seems like a good idea to say up front, in brief (like in a page or so):  What is the problem?  What are the open scientific/engineering questions you are specifically addressing?  What is your technical approach?  What will the results mean?  Then, explain the organization of the proposal (e.g., section 2 gives a more detailed introduction to the problem and open questions; section 3 explains the technical approach, including a timeline of proposed work; etc.).  This lets readers know where to find things. 

I'll confess:  I got this organizational approach by emulating the structure of an excellent proposal that I reviewed a number of years ago.  It was really terrific - clear; pedagogical, so that a non-expert in that precise area could understand the issues and ideas; very cleanly written; easy-to-read figures, including diagrams that really showed how the ideas would work.   Reviewing proposals is very helpful in improving your own.  Very quickly you will get a sense of what you think makes a good or bad proposal.  NSF is probably the most open to getting new investigators involved in the reviewing process. 

Don't wait until the last minute.  You know that classmate of yours from undergrad days, the one who used to brag about how they waited until the night before to blitz through a 20 page writing assignment?  Amazingly, some of these people end up as successful academics.  I genuinely don't know how they do it, because these days research funding is so competitive and proposals are detailed and complicated.  There are many little formatting details that agencies enforce now.  You don't want to get to an hour before the deadline and realize that all of your bibliographic references are missing a URL field.   People really do read sections like data management plans and postdoctoral mentoring plans - you can't half-ass them.   Also, while it is unlikely to sink a really good proposal, it definitely comes across badly to referees if there are missing or mislabeled references, figures, etc. 

I could write more, and probably will amend this down the line, but work calls and this is at least a start.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Rice Academy of Fellows 2020

As I had posted a year ago:  Rice has a university-wide competitive postdoctoral fellow program known as the Rice Academy of Fellows.   Like all such things, it's very competitive.  The new application listing has gone live here with a deadline of January 3, 2020.  Applicants have to have a faculty mentor, so in case someone is interested in working with me on this, please contact me via email.  We've got some fun, exciting stuff going on!

Friday, November 01, 2019

Sorry for the hiatus

My apologies for the unusually long hiatus in posts.  Proposal deadlines + department chair obligations + multiple papers in process made the end of October very challenging.   Later next week I expect to pick up again.  Suggested topics (in the comments?) are always appreciated.  I realize I've never written an advice-on-grant-proposal-writing post.  On the science side, I'm still mulling over the most accessible way to describe quantum Hall physics, and there are plenty of other "primer" topics that I should really write at some point.

If I hadn't been so busy, I would've written a post during the baseball World Series about how the hair of Fox Sports broadcaster Joe Buck is a study in anisotropic light scattering.  Viewed straight on, it's a perfectly normal color, but when lit and viewed from an angle, it's a weirdly iridescent yellow - I'm thinking that this really might have interesting physics behind it, in the form of some accidental structural color

Thursday, October 17, 2019

More items of interest

This continues to be a very very busy time, but here are a few interesting things to read:

Monday, October 07, 2019

"Phase of matter" is a pretty amazing emergent concept

As we await the announcement of this year's physics Nobel tomorrow morning (last chance for predictions in the comments), a brief note:

I think it's worth taking a moment to appreciate just how amazing it is that matter has distinct thermodynamic phases or states.

We teach elementary school kids that there are solids, liquids, and gases, and those are easy to identify because they have manifestly different properties.  Once we know more about microscopic details that are hard to see with unaided senses, we realize that there are many more macroscopic states - different structural arrangements of solids; liquid crystals; magnetic states; charge ordered states; etc.

When we take statistical physics, we learn descriptively what happens.  When you get a large number of particles (say atoms for now) together, the macroscopic state that they take on in thermal equilibrium is the one that corresponds to the largest number of microscopic arrangements of the constituents under the given conditions.  So, the air in my office is a gas because, at 298 K and 101 kPa, there are many many more microscopic arrangements of the molecules with that temperature and pressure that look like a gas than there are microscopic arrangements of the molecules that correspond to a puddle of N2/O2 mixture on the floor. 

Still, there is something special going on.  It's not obvious that there should have to be distinct phases at all, and such a small number of them.  There is real universality about solids - their rigidity, resistance to shear, high packing density of atoms - independent of details.  Likewise, liquids with their flow under shear, comparative incompressibility, and general lack of spatial structure.  Yes, there are detailed differences, but any kid can recognize that water, oil, and lava all have some shared "liquidity".  Why does matter end up in those configurations, and not end up being a homogeneous mush over huge ranges of pressure and temperature?  This is called emergence, because while it's technically true that the standard model of particle physics undergirds all of this, it is not obvious in the slightest how to deduce the properties of snowflakes, raindrops, or water vapor from there.    Like much of condensed matter physics, this stuff is remarkable (when you think about it), but so ubiquitous that it slides past everyone's notice pretty much of the time.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Items of interest

As I struggle with being swamped this semester, some news items:
  • Scott Aaronson has a great summary/discussion about the forthcoming google/John Martinis result about quantum supremacy.  The super short version:  There is a problem called "random circuit sampling", where a sequence of quantum gate operations is applied to some number of quantum bits, and one would like to know the probability distribution of the outcomes.  Simulating this classically becomes very very hard as the number of qubits grows.  The google team apparently just implemented the actual problem directly using their 53-qubit machine, and could infer the probability distribution by directly sampling a large number of outcomes.   They could get the answer this way in 3 min 20 sec for a number of qubits where it would take the best classical supercomputer 10000 years to simulate.  Very impressive and certainly a milestone (though the paper is not yet published or officially released).  This has led to some fascinating semantic discussions with colleagues of mine about what we mean by computation.  For example, this particular situation feels a bit to me like comparing the numerical solution to a complicated differential equation (i.e. some Runge-Kutta method) on a classical computer with an analog computer using op-amps and R/L/C components.  Is the quantum computer here really solving a computational problem, or is it being used as an experimental platform to simulate a quantum system?  And what is the difference, and does it matter?  Either way, a remarkable achievement.  (I'm also a bit jealous that Scott routinely has 100+ comment conversations on his blog.)
  • Speaking of computational solutions to complex problems.... Many people have heard about chaotic systems and why numerical solutions to differential equations can be fraught with peril due to, e.g., rounding errors.  However, I've seen two papers this week that show just how bad this can be.  This very good news release pointed me to this paper, where it shows that even using 64 bit precision doesn't save you from issues in some systems.  Also this blog post points to this paper, which shows that n-body gravitational simulations have all sorts of problems along these lines.  Yeow.
  • SpaceX has assembled their mammoth sub-orbital prototype down in Boca Chica.  This is going to be used for test flights up to 22 km altitude, and landings.  I swear, it looks like something out of Tintin or The Conquest of Space.  Awesome.
  • Time to start thinking about Nobel speculation.  Anyone?

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

DOE Experimental Condensed Matter PI Meeting, day 3 and wrapup

On the closing day of the PI meeting, some further points and wrap-up:

  • I had previously missed work that shows that electric field can modulate magnetic exchange in ultrathin iron (overview).
  • Ferroelectric layers can modulate transport in spin valves by altering the electronic energetic alignment at interfaces.  This can result in some unusual response (e.g., the sign of the magnetoresistance can flip with the sign of the current, implying spin-diode-like properties).
  • Artificial spin ices are still cool model systems.  With photoelectron emission microscopy (PEEM), it's possible to image ultrathin, single-domain structures to reveal their mangetization noninvasively.  This means movies can be made showing thermal fluctuations of the spin ice constituents, revealing the topological character of the magnetic excitations in these systems.  
  • Ultrathin oxide membranes mm in extent can be grown, detached from their growth substrates, and transferred or stacked.  When these membranes are really thin, it becomes difficult to nucleate cracks, allowing the membranes to withstand large strains (several percent!), opening up the study of strain effects on a variety of oxide systems.
  • Controlled growth of stacked phthalocyanines containing transition metals can generate nice model systems for studying 1d magnetism, even using conventional (large-area) methods like vibrating sample magnetometry.
  • In situ oxide MBE and ARPES, plus either vacuum annealing or ozone annealing, has allowed the investigation of the BSCCO superconducting phase diagram over the whole range of dopings, from severely underdoped to so overdoped that superconductivity is completely suppressed.  In the overdoped limit, analyzing the kink found in the band dispersion near the antinode, it seems superconductivity is suppressed at high doping because the coupling (to the mode that causes the kink) goes to zero at large doping.  
  • It's possible to grow nice films of C60 molecules on Bi2Se3 substrates, and use ARPES to see the complicated multiple valence bands at work in this system.  Moreover, by doing measurements as a function of the polarization of the incoming light, the particular molecular orbitals contributing to those bands can be identified.
  • Through careful control of conditions during vacuum filtration, it's possible to produce dense, locally crystalline films of aligned carbon nanotubes.  These have remarkable optical properties, and with the anisotropy of their electronic structure plus ultraconfined character, it's possible to get exciton polaritons in these into the ultrastrong coupling regime.
Overall this was a very strong meeting - the variety of topics in the program is impressive, and the work shown in the talks and posters was uniformly interesting and of high quality.