A short story by Moshe Sipper
Twenty-one minutes and thirty-two seconds.
Professor Artie Mensch viewed the remaining time shown in large, bold numerals on the iWall and then he turned to his young colleague. “You know, this whole system is only ten years old.”
“Is it now?” said Dr. Tommy Bing. “Well, ten years ago I was still an undergraduate.”
“Ah, youth,” sighed Artie smilingly.
“We’ll know soon enough whether we’ve nailed that grant,” said Tommy apprehensively. This was his third year as an untenured Assistant Professor and he’d yet to secure a grant. This year he’d teamed up with Artie, who as a tenured Full Professor was able to view things with far more serenity.
Eighteen minutes and seventeen seconds.
“So why did they change the system?” asked Tommy after a moment. He knew the answer, of course, but Artie loved to explain things, and Tommy felt that hearing him was better than anxiously counting the seconds.
“Well,” began Artie cheerily, “the National Science Foundation was founded in 1950, just a few years after World War II, to administer grants in science and engineering. At first things moved along nicely, grants were submitted, handled in a timely manner, and replies were then issued. But, as the years went by, the system got bogged down. The number of grant applications grew by leaps and bounds, and so, accordingly, the NSF too had to grow. Obviously, the budget for grants increased — though far less than we scientists would wish for.”
Artie chuckled as Tommy nodded. He knew all this but hearing his older colleague’s voice helped pass the time.
Thirteen minutes and forty-one seconds.
Artie went on. “But, more ominously, so did the administrative budget grow. The NSF needed more and more staff to handle the explosive number of grants submitted. I think at its peak there were about four thousand fulltime employees at the NSF. They actually had plans for constructing yet another giant building — the third — to house them all!”
Tommy was silently watching the iWall.
Nine minutes and eighteen seconds.
“And that’s just the money spent by the NSF itself to administer the grants,” said Artie forcefully. “Compound that with the work done by the reviewers. I mean, these were professors and researchers who had a full schedule as it was, and yet were still asked to take the time to review proposals. Billions were lost because of wasted reviewers’ time alone.”
“But the worst part,” added Artie emphatically, “as far as I’m concerned, was not the obscene amount of money spent — wasted! — no, the worst part was how people felt.”
At that Tommy perked up. There was nothing new about the history lesson so far, but the part about people’s feelings was unknown to him.
“You see, Tommy, scientists who submitted grants — and I can attest to this personally, mind you — often felt that the results were totally unfair. Sometimes it was obvious the reviewer hadn’t really taken the time to read through the proposal. Even worse, often a reviewer would write a scathing review just because he hated the author or perhaps because he simply had little respect for the author’s domain.”
“Humans.” Artie sighed and raised his hands in a what-can-you-do gesture. “Power corrupts and all that. You know, I once submitted a grant with Chuck Adams over at Geology about using cloud computing to study the effects of global warming in the southern hemisphere. You know what this one reviewer wrote?”
Tommy shook his head.
Five minutes and forty-one seconds.
“He wrote — and I remember it verbatim to this day: `The authors are advised to remove their heads from the cloud they inhabit and descend back to earth’. Can you believe that?”
Tommy smiled, actually forgetting for a moment the seconds ticking away.
Artie laughed boisterously and waved his hand. “Water under the bridge. Anyway, the whole thing had become a humungous, unfair, and hideous mess. And we’re supposed to be scientists — I mean, we’re the smart guys, right?”
“Yup,” said Tommy, echoing Artie’s words. “We’re the smart guys.”
“Then,” said Artie, “along came Dr. Sangria. As soon as he was appointed head of the NSF he set up a team to examine the unfortunate situation and come up with solutions. Of course, being a committee and all, they failed miserably.”
“Of course,” repeated Tommy, only half listening by now.
“Luckily, Dr. Sangria was saved by his son. Well, lucky for all of us, I guess.”
“His son?” asked Tommy, his interest once again piqued.
Two minutes and twenty-two seconds.
“Yeah, not many people know this part — everybody thinks Dr. Sangria came up with the idea on his own. But I met him a few years ago and he told me the whole story. Seems he and his boy were at a baseball game, which was going badly for their team, when the boy blurted out, ‘they might as well save money on an umpire and use a coin toss instead’. And that remark changed the course of science. Well, at least that of science funding.”
The countdown disappeared and was replaced by an announcement:
The National Science Foundation wishes to thank all the dedicated researchers who submitted grant applications.
The lottery has now finished.
To learn whether you have won a grant please click here.
Copyright © 2012 by Moshe Sipper