Spiral Development

When I was at NSF, we had a big problem child of a project, NEON, the National Ecological Observatory Network. Comprised of cyber-infrastructure, robotic sensors, human field sampling and airborne platforms extending from the Arctic Ocean to Puerto Rico, the nearly half-billion dollar project had chronic issues with costs and schedules. To fix those problems, the NSF brought in USAF Lt. General James Abrahamson  because he had been the fixer-in-chief on projects as diverse as the F-16 and the Space Shuttle.

One of the things that the General taught us to do, as far as fixing NEON, was to use spiral development: build a little, test a little, build a little more, test a little more. We learned that one of the root problems with the NEON design was that it had been “frozen in place” back in the first years of the new century and hence was technologically obsoleted before we finished construction. Spiral development was one of the key approaches we used to fix NEON.

Here’s a new article in Space News on how that approach is being currently deployed in the USAF. It strikes me that this approach should be used in many science R&D areas where the time-line is lengthy and the consequences for failure are large.

Mountain Top Plant Species Richness: An Effect of Climate Change?

As my colleagues know, I read the paper version of Nature every week while reading Science on-line. I find that with the hard copy of the journal on my desk, I read (or at least skim) every article rather than skipping around to what’s in my discipline. So, from Nature, last week, this article popped up. It’s a European finding with what looks like several scores of authors—they looked at plant species diversity data from mountain tops across Europe from a time series of 145 years. The results were striking—an acceleration in “richness” (diversity) with 5X species enrichment during the last decade as compared with the decade 50 years ago.

120 Days Out…

It’s been four months now since I’ve left NSF and returned to my university. During that time, I’ve gotten my first grant, taught two courses and given sundry talks around the state all towards the notion that, in life science, for Virginia, the whole is more than the sum of the parts. In our Commonwealth, even with a wealth of research university talent, too often we compete with each other for the crumbs rather than going after the big prizes that are out there.


What do I mean by the crumbs? Well, at the university level, these are the sponsored research opportunities that would be meaningful and significant at the individual PI level, but that are not a good return on investment (of time and energy) on the part of the institution as a whole, to say nothing of the state.


Contrast that to what I saw routinely during my time at NSF—where institutions within a state would coalesce around competitions for major center awards (and larger)—each institution supporting her sisters in a complementary style. This type of energy was visible, not only for the usual suspects like California or Massachusetts, but also for states that one might not expect.


I’ll be writing more about this subject matter in future blog entries….

Teaching again…

I am now three weeks into the semester and surprisingly, it’s been fairly easy.  The routine of teaching, grading, seminar preparation and the like are relaxing, even enjoyable. My students are graduate level in the School of Public Policy at George Mason. Because we are in D.C., some of my students are as senior as I am. And, I am learning from all of them.

At the same time, I have started a book project and am busy shopping out an Op Ed about the  President’s science budget–which hasn’t been released yet. Although… there was a leak that made it to the Washington Post in the last day or so.

For fun, over Spring Break, I’ll be headed to Paris with my wife. We plan to take advantage of all the excellent advice that we have received from friends and even ex-colleagues at NSF. So enjoying life…

Graduate Tuition Support at NSF

One thing that I didn’t know, before I came to NSF in 2014 was that support for graduate student research assistants as part of regular research grants includes tuition support that is not capped. According to this NSF FAQ:

Tuition remission is generally treated as part of an organization’s fringe benefit rate or as a direct cost. NSF’s policy is that colleges and universities should budget tuition remission consistent with its established indirect cost rate methodology and negotiated rate agreement. If tuition remission is budgeted as a direct cost, it should be listed in the “Other” category of the Budget under “Other Direct Costs.

Note that there is nothing about a cap in the above guidance.

In contrast, NIH does cap tuition support for graduate research assistants at around $16K. Here is the relevant NIH policy:

Undergraduate and Predoctoral Trainees and Fellows:  For institutional training grants (T32, T34, T35, T90, TL1, TL4) and individual fellowships (F30, F31), an amount per predoctoral trainee equal to 60% of the level requested by the applicant institution, up to $16,000 per year, will be provided.

This difference between the two science agencies is trivial for a lot of cases, were graduate students are paying in-state tuition at a public university. You can find some of the relevant data from the College Board here. However, in the case of some of the private research universities, this can be a very large amount of money. Here is the relevant tuition information for Princeton. And here in the same for Boston University. Even for public institutions, the out-of-state tuition can be very large in comparison to $16K (Rackham graduate school, University of Michigan).

Taken to its logical conclusion, NSF risks becoming a tuition-support agency instead of a science agency as tuition costs continue to rise across the country. This makes no sense. NSF should cap tuition support just like NIH does.

The communications problem…

As in the communications problems of scientists as they try to explain the intellectual merit of their work to non-scientists in plain language. Here’s a terrific essay by Samuel Matlack on that problem within the context of physics. This is not some feel-good exercise. Unless and until scientists develop this knack, they will continue to be viewed with skepticism by the folks who hold the purse strings.