Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Rejection Still Hurts

Twenty years of experience with rejection makes it no easier. Funding brings immediate optimism in anticipation of the exciting work to come. On the flip side is the dreaded email that coldly states, "Panel Recommendation: The proposal was placed in the Do Not Recommend [DNR] category by the panel. " I avoid the gloom of rejection by filing away the reviews for several months, allowing enough time to pass for me to give them an objective read. Now that the sting of rejection has subsided, I am ready to share the reviewers' comments of a proposal that was rejected last year.

Two years ago, I felt glib satisfaction when NSF began soliciting "highly novel" proposals that showed potential for truly transformative breakthroughs. I was filled with certainty that the reviewers would see the brilliance of my ideas. The basis of my proposal was simple. In analogy to a transistor, which controls the flow of electrical current, the materials that we are studying can control the flow of light. They also act as sensors and can change shape in response to light. But the coup des gras is that these materials can be made into devices that can be integrated together into big morphing blobs with incredible intelligence (click here for a tutorial on photomechanical effects and smart materials).

We had built the an optical logic circuit - equivalent to several transistors worth of computing power, but with all the extra functionality, and all in a single device. We argued that in analogy to electronics, if we could demonstrate the equivalent of an integrated circuit (we started small, proposing to connect two such devices together), then the potential technological impacts would be staggering. Below is the summary of the three reviewers:

Summary Statement of Reviewer 1

The objective is to make a novel new material that has the ability to morph in response to stress or light. The PI aims to use this bifurcation component for mimicking a neural network. Although there are some concerns including size, scalability, speed and power efficiency, this might be a good test bed for studying unit components for a neural network.

Summary Statement of Reviewer 2

This is an excellent proposal with an interesting novel idea that can lead to a significant impact in a wide range of fields/applications. Also, the theoretical and experimental studies around this subject are broad enough to constitute a new field. I consider this proposal a highly transformative work.

Summary Statement of Reviewer 3

This is a visionary proposal with concrete short term goals. It could lay the foundation of a transformational shift in thinking about optical "materials." It is a refreshingly novel topic coupled with strong collaborations and interesting educational and outreach efforts. However, a more succinct background section combined with more extensive description of the experimental details would have made the proposal stronger.

Just based on the summaries, I would have thought that my proposal would be funded. There were no errors in my way of thinking, the worked seemed promising, and would even open up a new field.

To summarize the reviewer's comments (based on the full reviews and as alluded to in the summaries), the proposal was very good. The two criticisms were that (1) I did not provide extensive details of the experiments and (2) there were some concerns about how good this technology would be down the road. In essence, it would be akin to telling the inventors of the transistor that they had to anticipate all of the potential problems in building integrated circuits, and, that they did not give enough details about how they would design technologies that were decades away.

The National Science Foundation has an interest in supporting science to nurture new discoveries that are intrinsically interesting or that lead to new technologies - two criteria that my proposal met. Even my educational plan was considered innovative. However, to be fair, I understand that there are many more proposals submitted than can be funded, and not all good work can be supported. This is a fact of life that all scientists accept.

To end this post on a happier note, I quote the panel summary of a proposal of mine that was funded on the topic of theoretical studies of fundamental issues of light-matter interactions:

"This proposal addresses important and fundamental issue of optimizing nonlinear optical response of optical materials to achieve the highest figures of merit by performing modeling of 2nd, 3d and higher order non-linear susceptibilities. If successful, the theory/modeling will guide the materials synthesis in developing new optical materials with large nonlinearities increased by a factor of thirty, thus opening up interesting and important applications, e.g. in the area of cancer diagnostics and treatment. The panel members unanimously expressed support of this proposal as high payoff transformative direction of research."

Now this is a review that I don't mind reading repeatedly! But instead, my focus is on the steady progress that we are making over the last 2 years since the project was funded. In the end, a few declined proposals doesn't diminish the great satisfaction of doing interesting research.

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