Beki Grinter

Snowbird: Thinking Big in Computer Science

In academia, C@tM, computer science, discipline, research on July 20, 2010 at 12:56 pm

I’m in a session at the CRA Snowbird conference focused on thinking big in Computer Science as a means to pursue large grants. The session is organized by Debbie Crawford at the NSF. There were a range of speakers who each took a turn to provide their thoughts on pursuing large projects.

The first project is about robotic bees, the research to create them (it’s an NSF Expeditions). The problem set up is lovely. 30% of the worlds food requires pollination by bees. But bee colonies are dying. Can robotic bees help? It is simple to explain (and not to answer) and very compelling. Then there’s the team structure. They have 10 or so faculty in different research areas/disciplines, but all with core interests focused on robotic bees and other insects (I think that’s what I took away). Of course this suggests lots of related and prior work by the team members. Additionally they are all collocated, in Boston, with one person in Washington DC. Finally, collaborations existed among various team members also existed, so although the whole team had not worked together they all had some experience of working with other members of the team.

The process the Robobees team used to create the grant was a brainstorm meeting, collocated, purpose of which was to generate the outline for the Expeditions grant. They used the outline to divide the work, with each PI contributing text and figures where appropriate. Then a smaller number (guessing the lead PIs) integrated the text and circulated the document for feedback.

The next person to speak was from the DoE. I didnt personally get quite as much out of this talk as the others, I am sure that was due to my interests. What I did take away was that the DoE has lots of opportunities for computing, ranging from architectures, systems software, operating systems, programming languages, as well as the fields that make up computational science and engineering. If I was surprised, and perhaps I shouldn’t have been, the DoE is also focused on networks and remote collaboration tools to support distributed science.

The next person to speak was from DARPA. He talked about how to win (a DARPA contract).

In order of priority, he began with ideas matter. There’s a paper called the Army Capstone Concept that potential investigators should read. He asked the community to aim higher and bolder. He didn’t speak to this point, but I thought I saw on that slide it also said that the idea must be doable. The previous DARPA plenary said that it was alright to aim high and fail (at least initially) so I’d have liked to know more about doable. Second, it must fit the DARPA mission. Third and fourth were cost realism and the proposers’ capabilities and related experience. With respect to related experience he emphasized more than once that it should not just be your stature, but actual experience. He also said that it sometimes helped to write your proposal in parts, with budgets for the various parts because that can help in contracting (they may ask for some but not all of the parts I inferred from this, so modularity is advisable). Finally he emphasized engagement with the Program Managers, before the BAA and after the grant is awarded, he also reminded the audience that they read a lot of proposals, which I took as a reminder to make it engaging and interesting to read.

The next speaker came from the University of Michigan. He provided the experience of someone who has run large centers, and therefore has been successful in raising money for them. He did a great job of providing the faculty/lead PI perspective as well as suggesting what department chairs should do to help faculty who want to write large grants. He began by saying that not all faculty are interested in writing large grants and that in his opinion it’s pointless trying to encourage everyone to do so. Instead, find those who are willing and support them in doing it.

He argued that the reason to write large grants is the visibility and impact for both the individual and institution. Another value he highlighted was that a large effort can create a locus for other activity. So, a large center can spawn and facilitate related research efforts. But there are challenges. One is interdisciplinary. Not just external to CS but also among the specialities of CS. So all the challenges of doing interdisciplinary work apply. Another challenge is that you have to have complete coverage in the space you are proposing around, you have to plan for it from the beginning and the PI has to ensure that any gaps are filled, even if he gaps that need filling are not attractive research to the person that takes the ultimate responsibility. I had the impression that what he was saying was that one of the responsibilities of the PI was to fill those gaps.

So what can department chairs do to help? Reductions in teaching load, staff support, and institutional support. And recognize that the time spent can diminish ongoing research activities. Also since it requires resources, pick the best opportunities. And if you are successful recognize that you get a part of the action, because the large projects will span units and institutions.

Finally a CISE NSF person spoke. She mentioned two large center programs the ERC and the STC, as well as a center-like entity, university-industry centers for partnership. CISE has a center-like program called Expeditions, the current round of which will be announced next month. There’s no restriction on topic, but it should have impact on CISE, society, and possibly the economy. They look for something where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, if they could have funded ten small projects instead of one large one it is not compelling. Expeditions was partially designed to fill a gap created by DARPA (but there was an observation that it might now be a gap that the new DARPA is filling).

Expeditions is also a mechanism to engage the Computer Science community to engage more in center like activities. The NSF representative observed that Computer Scientists participate less in (I presume this means lead) less ERC and STC centers than other disciplines. Expeditions is a launch pad for potentially taking things to a center activity when the Expedition is done. An interesting note, the number of submissions has dropped massively for Expeditions, 68, 48, 23 in the three years that it’s been active. Finally she noted that some Expeditions had lead PIs that were not Full Professors, noting that Assistants and Associates did succeed with these efforts.

  1. How did you get in? (non chair/dean?) 🙂

    • Entertainment! I gave a talk in one of the sessions. Computing at the Margins at the Development session.

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