While it is probably just a coincidence, over the past two weeks, I have heard talks and interviews with several people from the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute including Jill Tarter’s TED Talk. SETI has been looking for signs of intelligent life in the cosmos since 1984 with no success. Despite this, they keep looking, and astronomer Seth Shostak says they are close (about 20 years) to finding something. When asked what would happen if SETI didn’t find anything in 20 years, Shostak answered they would keep looking. As it is impossible to prove a negative, they can’t prove there isn’t anything out there just because they don’t find it.
I think people have mixed feelings about SETI. I believe the odds are against us being alone in the universe, but I also plan to have a nervous breakdown and hide in my closet when first contact happens. So, I want SETI to keep working, but I am not sure I want them to ever succeed.
It has to be an opinion SETI is familiar with. Even when on ScienceFriday, a radio show with an audience packed full of people who love science, SETI researchers know there are listeners who have mixed feelings regarding their chances and what they do. But every time I hear one of them speak, it is with such an unapologetic enthusiasm about both their work and the reasons they think they are correct that I really enjoy listening to the conversation. Which is, of course, exactly as it should be.
There are a few things all grant writers should take from SETI’s example:
Unapologetic enthusiasm is a really good thing. It should be all over your grant proposal. Not everyone believes in your ideas. And yeah, it can be a little annoying constantly trying to explain your work so “lay people” understand it or focusing on the “point” of your research beyond the search for answers. ?” It can wear you down and make you want to apologize for what you are doing.
Your research is cool. Asking questions and searching for their answers is important. You are proposing a project for the next three to five years of your life. Be excited about it. Let your proposal reviewers know you are excited about it. Your research is fun and excellent and useful. You just need to tell reviewers.
Confidence that you are correct is even better than unapologetic enthusiasm. I can only imagine the frustration that must come from hearing questions like “well, you’ve been working on this for a long time. Why haven’t you discovered anything?” Or “if it was something that can be done, why hasn’t it been done yet?” But it has an easy answer: it is the first time you’ve tried it.
Arrogant? Absolutely. Try it on. Have some fun with it. Sit down at your keyboard to write your proposal with the assumption your hypothesis is correct and your project will work exactly as you’ve planned it. Explain the current state of the field that supports why you are right and how you are taking the next logically step in your field, but still a big step that will change your field forever. Then, when you edit, add some information about what you’ll do if things don’t go as planned. Don’t write that information with a sense of failure, rather from the perspective that things change and plans change and you are ready to handle it.
Because even your project doesn’t go according to plan, you are still taking that big step for your field. Having a different answer to a question is better than having no answer at all, which is what we’ve got now.
It is good if your quest for answers is going to take a while. Very little that’s worthwhile happens quickly and probably your research cannot be completed with one five-year grant. This is a good thing. However, I am sure discovering the answers to the question you are researching can be broken into several smaller pieces which could be completed in five years or so. Use those pieces for your grant proposals. The great part about this is you can explain the importance of the piece in the larger picture of your research career path. “This project will answer the question XX which brings me closer to determining Y.” As long as Y is the research you are so enthusiastic about, you will be all set because you will be able to get excited about the pieces along the way getting you closer to your final goal.
The search for answers is a good use of time and money. Remember this when you are writing your grant proposals.
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