Several grants - posted

I've just posted my 2nd try at the NSF CAREER award to the lab Web site, where it joins my recent NSF BIGDATA proposal, my Moore Foundation proposal, last year's (rejected) NSF CAREER proposal, my NGS course grant, and my one big funded grant, my USDA proposal from 2009. The two latest grants, combined, lay out an algorithmic framework for solving the short-read Big Sequencing Data problem.

I have to admit I don't have a clear goal in posting them. It feels risky, because what if? What if someone takes my brilliant ideas and steals them?! Or, uh, I'm not really sure what else? My only actual concern is that people will read them and laugh at me because they suck so badly (one reason why scientists often don't open source their code, note). I'm consoled by thinking that no one will ever read such long and dense documents, so the odds are that random Google queries are the only way that people will ever read even part of them. Whew.

(I suppose Anthropologists might find them interesting -- writing these things is what many professors spend much of their time doing.)

On the plus side, the contents are now available to people who want to know what I do, and my students and postdocs have an example (for better or for worse) of what grants look like. Plus there's a bunch of dandy PhD projects in there!

Why don't more people post grants? I'm really not sure, except that it seems like part of the culture of secrecy that pervades science (to its frequent detriment). I'm sure one concern really is theft of ideas; perhaps another concern is the lack of an obvious upside. What else?

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With respect to theft of ideas, I offer a few counterpoints.

First, I have lots of ideas; that's part of why I went into science, which purports to give me the opportunity to explore whatever ideas I do have. So, go ahead and "steal" them -- then I can go off and work on some of my other ideas!

Second, what about duplication of effort!? Honestly, the odds are poor that anyone will simply take my ideas verbatim -- it's much more likely that they will mix and match. If it's better, great; if not, why worry? Combine that with the general duplication of effort in science and I'm just not that worried about this.

Third, even if my ideas are swiped, it's not likely to affect the funding of the grant they were taken from; there's some vague worry there about how maybe reviewers would see duplication in two grants and have to choose between them, but I don't actually see any way for that to work, since I'm only posting the grants once they've been submitted.

Fourth, my grants are statistically unlikely to be funded. The funding rate for most NSF panels is in the 5-10% range, which means that only 1 in 10 to 1 in 20 grants will actually be funded. Since I have to write them anyway, I'd like to try to maximize their utility. Who knows, perhaps some foreign government will see a use for weaponizing metagenome assembly techniques and I can get DOD-style funding!! Or a funding fairy will magically appear to throw bales of cash at me. Or, much more likely, someone will want to collaborate, which would be all to the good.

Fifth, I think theft of ideas is overblown. Someone actually cares enough to think my ideas are worth stealing? I'd be lucky to be that relevant. I can't even get people to download and use our awesomely functioning open source software, which comes with documentation, tutorials, and papers, and actually solves real problems. What hope do I have that my grants -- which are rather focused -- would be more relevant than actual functioning software?

Sixth, even if my grants are stolen, it's unlikely to affect my career that much. My career has only been improved by all the nonofficial things I do (open source, blogging, etc.) and I've been sort of unimpressed by the effect of toeing any notional lines of behavior (grants! papers!) that all seem to have long latency and be severely biased towards already successful career scientists.

So I don't see any big downsides, and there are a lot of potential upsides (see: funding fairies). In the end, it's an experiment, like so much else of what I do. I wonder what the downsides are to being aggressively open about such things? Maybe I'll find out! Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion!

--titus

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