It all sounded so easy when we were writing the proposal. Sure, we can deploy 54 seafloor magnetotelluric (MT) instruments around a remote Aleutian island, no problem, Scripps has done lots of marine MT deployments before. Add on a 3D array of onshore magnetotelluric and seismic stations covering the flanks and caldera of a volcano that erupted without almost no warning back in 2008? Sure, that won’t be too hard either since we will have a helicopter transporting the field team and science equipment, and we can base our field camp at a remote cattle ranch used by previous field teams working on Okmok. So we worked up our budgets, with the University of Wisconsin covering most of the costs of the onshore field work, Scripps mostly covering the marine MT budget, and our unfunded collaborators at the USGS advising us that the field plan and budget were viable based on their extensive previous field experience.
Proposal writing and planning is super fun – it’s when we get to dream how to study things that we find scientifically compelling. But the cold brutal truth is that the majority of the proposals submitted to the National Science Foundation (NSF) aren’t funded due to the limited amount of research funding available and the intense competition among our scientific peers. This is a reality that may be getting even more grim due to current congressional actions to further reduce funding for NSF’s Geoscience directorate. When we were writing this one, I was on a bad losing streak where 12 of my previous proposal submissions in a row had been declined funding (the overall funding rate is said to be about 20-30% of all proposal submissions). So while it’s super easy to get excited when writing a proposal to go study something awesome like a caldera volcano, one tempers that with knowledge that the project is simply unlikely to be funded. It becomes a game of trying to manage your time – how much time do you spend planning the project, researching the science motivation and background material and writing the proposal text so it’s the best it can possibly be, while also not spending too much time knowing the outcome is likely to be nothing more than an exercise in dreaming? Well actually, researching the background material is a great way to expand your scientific knowledge regardless of the proposal’s chance of success, so it is more useful than just being an exercise in dreaming. And of course many of the declined proposals are recycled from year to year, like a phoenix rising from the ashes of the previous review cycle, ideally with the quality of the scientific motivation and research plan substantially improving with each revised submission. Anyway, once this proposal was submitted in time for the July 2014 GeoPRISMs submission deadline, I pretty much stopped thinking about the project.
Fast forward to early January of this year when we get an email from the NSF program manager stating “Your proposal did well in the competition for GeoPRISMS funds and I plan to fund it at this time”.
Seriously, this was good news.
Then comes the word that everything is going to happen this summer…starting in mid-June. Whoa, its now the end of January and we’re supposed get everything in place for two cruises and three weeks of land field work in just a few months. Time to get moving!