Recent NSF Grants

In responding to a comment on the previous posting, I was curious if one could easily get some data on relative sizes of grants in mathematics and physics, so started to do a quick search on nsf.gov. Among the first few NSF grants that turned up, I noticed a couple rather odd things:

  • Award 1056580 for a postdoc in “Dark Energy, Fine-Tuning, and the Multiverse: Testing Theories in Modern Cosmology” drew my eye, since my impression was that NSF physics panels weren’t so likely to support Multiverse Mania research. Taking a look at the details of the award gave the explanation: this one is being funded not by the physics division (PHY) at NSF, but by the sociologists (SES, Division of Social and Economic Studies). So, now it seems that multiverse studies are part of sociology, which is much more appropriate than physics, and has the added advantage of opening up new funding opportunities.
  • Trying to pick a typical theory group grant, I took a look at Award 0969020, for the string theorists at UT Austin. I was pleased to see that blogging is now a selling point on NSF grants:

    Professor Distler authors a blog which discusses and elucidates many of the important research papers which appear on the daily arXiv listings, and he plans to continue his activity.

    The abstract was the usual sort of string theory promotional verbiage, beginning:

    For the past two decades, string theory has been one of the most intensely investigated areas of theoretical high-energy physics. This is true chiefly because string theory offers what is currently the most successful method of unifying gravity with the other fundamental forces (strong, weak, and electromagnetic).

    The next one I took a look at was Award 1001296 to theorists at UPenn, whose abstract sounded kind of familiar, beginning:

    For the past two decades, string theory has been one of the most intensely investigated areas of theoretical high-energy physics. This is true chiefly because string theory offers what is currently the most successful method of unifying gravity with the other fundamental forces (strong, weak, and electromagnetic).

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    29 Responses to Recent NSF Grants

    1. Shecky R. says:

      Well, this is all sort of funny… or, NOT! (or maybe by mistake you just logged into the National Sociological Foundation grants and didn’t realize it).

    2. JSE says:

      Re the first grant: studying the battles touched off by string theory over the philosophical question “what constitutes evidence for a theory?” seems to me a very interesting and important question in the philosophy and sociology of science. It seems especially suited to somebody like the PI, David Kaiser, a historian who holds Ph.Ds in both history and physics. He gave a very illuminating physics colloquium here last month about the history of Bell’s theorem outside academic physics in the 1970s. Good granting, as far as I’m concerned.

    3. Peter Woit says:

      JSE,

      The multiverse business is certainly an interesting issue in sociology and philosophy of science, and I’ve no problem with it being studied as such. The funny thing is how much their abstract reads just like those of people claiming to be doing conventional physics these days.

      By the way, Kaiser has an interesting book about to appear on the topic you mention, called “How the Hippies Saved Physics”. I’ve written a review of it for American Scientist, soon to appear, at which point I’ll write something on that topic here.

    4. DLS says:

      Regarding the last two quotes, I’ve seen that sort of thing before. My understanding is that NSF program officers can sometimes insert a sentence or two in award descriptions that they feel need a little extra non-technical context, and these get re-used. So while it’s possible that the PIs borrowed from each other, you can’t take it to the bank.

    5. Peter Woit says:

      DLS,

      Since the awards were made at the same time, the hypothesis that someone at the NSF is responsible for this seems reasonable. Perhaps they’ll save people some work from now on by just reusing the same hype on all grants in the field. Just imagine the amount of time that has been wasted over the past 25 years by thousands of physicists trying to come up with some new way of saying the same thing. Enough’s enough.

    6. Marc says:

      The funny side is that Distler has not discussed physics or arxiv papers in months on his blog, but only posts about his bizarre software packages. His blog has become completely narcissistic and useless.

    7. Tim van Beek says:

      Peter said:

      The multiverse business is certainly an interesting issue in sociology and philosophy of science…

      Yes, definitely! Someone could start to investigate the redefinition of “successful” in statements like

      …string theory offers what is currently the most successfulmethod of unifying gravity with the other fundamental forces…

      Also, I’m surprised that the fact that

      …string theory has been one of the most intensely investigated areas…

      is supposed to be an argument pro more research. When I was a graduate student in Heidelberg, I remember a discussion about someone not getting funding for more solid state physics research, because the Heidelberg factulty already had a fair share of solid state physicists. (And these are people who produce tangible results every year.)

    8. JSE says:

      By the way, you can find mention of my blog in my latest grant, too:

      http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward.do?AwardNumber=1101267

      I’m with Peter — blogging is “broader impact,” and if you blog you should say so in your proposal.

    9. Mikhail shifman says:

      Excellent observation!

    10. Roman Oliynyk says:

      My first post here, although enjoyed reading the blog for a couple of months.
      Excellent and sad observations. Will be interesting to see 5 years from now, hopefully the trend will change by then. Provided string theorists can find a different line of work and enough integrity to go a different way, when CERN and other experimental results will show no evidence of supersymmetry as stated and no heavy particles. Well, I am preaching to the choir masters…

    11. Roman Oliynyk says:

      On second thought, one already have done it. Lubos Motl 🙂

    12. anon says:

      If SUSY is not found, SUSY experts will be among the first to figure out whatever new theory that is to be established. They have the formidable mathematical and theoretical skills that are needed for such tasks.

    13. ysus says:

      If SUSY is not found at the LHC, then SUSY will get modified, that is all. When experimental data showed there was no aether drag, the aether theory was not abandoned. Instead it was modified: the Lorentz-FitzGerald length contraction was invented. The aether theory was only abandoned when Einstein came up with a better alternative theory (= special relativity). (And as events showed, relativity incorporated the Lorentz-FitzGerald length contraction in a natural way.) SUSY will only be abandoned when something better comes along. But first there will need to be some data, which SUSY cannot explain easily. “No data” (at the LHC) is not a disproof. There is no other clearly superior alternative theory, and “no data” doesn’t point the way to a better theory.

    14. Peter Woit says:

      anon and ysus,

      Sometimes I just can’t tell whether comments here are parodies or not.

      There is a better, more powerful and simpler theory than SUSY. It’s called the Standard Model.

    15. anon says:

      I don’t totally disagree, but worshiping the standard model is really an activity for the 1970s. SUSY is proven to be the only possible extension of Poincare symmetry of the S-matrix, so its experimental discovery would be on par with special relativity. Given that GR exists in nature, the discovery of SUSY would automatically imply the existence of SUGRA, which may be the low energy limit of string theory. Even if SUGRA is to have a UV completion other than string theory, we are already half-way at finding a quantum theory of gravity. Besides, SUSY would guarantee the precise unification of gauge coupling constants, which would constitute the strongest evidence towards GUTs which are natural and appealing models.
      Even though people are well aware that SUSY is too speculative, the potential pay-off is simply too big, so they can’t resist the temptation to work on it. Why haven’t criticizers come up with something that is more exciting and more addictive?

    16. chris says:

      “Given that GR exists in nature, the discovery of SUSY would automatically imply the existence of SUGRA, which may be the low energy limit of string theory.”

      do you really mean imply? not hint at or provide evidence in favor of?

      i mean, we have no clue yet how to quantize gravity. there are some indications that some sugra models are preturbatively renormalizable (or even superrenormalizable), but they have a host of other difficulties.

      in addition, we know for a fact that at least the vacuum state breaks susy. this is quite a bit different than in the case of the Poincare group. and just because we know how to promote this symmetry to a local one in the classical case does not at all imply that we can do the same with a spontaneously broken extension in the quantum case.

      it is exactly this kind of sloppy thinking that poisons hep-theory these days. finding a vague analogy is often a good starting point, but unless you can establish every single argument in your chain of reasoning, consider a conjecture a conjecture and not more.

    17. Peter Woit says:

      Please all, enough of the SUSY arguing, please stick to the topic of the posting.

    18. Bertrand Gray says:

      I wonder how many times that NSF abstract is used in other multiverses?

      Probably billions upon billions?

    19. Bertrand Gray says:

      Or, NSF could claim that the duplicate abstract in this universe is proof that not only does the multiverse exist, but chosen entities pass back and forth between them!

      Also–am I reading DLS right? He writes, “Regarding the last two quotes, I’ve seen that sort of thing before. My understanding is that NSF program officers can sometimes insert a sentence or two in award descriptions that they feel need a little extra non-technical context, and these get re-used. So while it’s possible that the PIs borrowed from each other, you can’t take it to the bank.”

      What? Really? Then what is the purpose of abstracts? Is he saying that the National SCIENCE Foundation is striving to be non-technical? For who? Aren’t the folks applying for grants and receiving them–the folks reading NSF Bulletins–the most technical folks in the world?

      And is it not possible to be non-technical without repeating verbatim an abstract? Or is there only one non-technical abstract for all of string theory?

      DLS’s ho-hum nonchalance and flippancy is as astounding as the identical abstracts! If not moreso! It’s like a vast car pileup/accident or big building going up in flames and someone standing on the street corner going, “nothing of interest here. Move along now.”

      One must wonder how often Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg submitted IDENTICAL abstracts. lol!

    20. Peter Woit says:

      Bertrand Gray,

      In general, the abstracts that appear on the NSF web-site are not necessarily the original ones written for the grant application, but may have been partially rewritten by someone at the NSF, with the goal of explaining what the grant is about to as many people (taxpayers, congresspersons, etc) as possible. So, in this case it’s not what it might originally appear to be (someone plagiarizing someone else’s language, which is a big No-No in academia), but someone at the NSF maybe self-plagiarizing and re-using language of their own.

      Coming up with sensible language explaining why string theory research needs to be funded is not so easy to do once these days, having to do it dozens of times, year after year, is quite a task.

    21. cormac says:

      Hi Peter, I too am pleased to see that first award. Prof Kaiser is both an excellent physicist and historian. I’ve sat in on many of his lectures on the history of 20th century physics at MIT this year and they are superb.
      More importantly, I’ve studied quite a few sociological studies of physics by academics who know a lot about sociology but less about physics, and they can reach some very strange conclusions indeed. I think studies like this one, by academics who walk in both worlds, are to be strongly encouraged.

    22. Bertrand Gray says:

      Thanks Peter,

      Yes–I was just at my local Tea Party meeting, and thanks to the duplicate abstracts which were authored for us laymen, I think we all finally grasped the beauty and promise of string theory. Some people just need to hear things twice is all, and I think we’ll all be voting for more string theory funding now. 🙂

    23. anon2 says:

      The highlights from the long interview by John Horgan which you gave in five years ago for Not Even Wrong are now on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukNbQEq4kEE

    24. David Brown says:

      I have 2 questions about the academic sociology of string theory: Approximately how many string theorists are there? Approximately how many academic positions are there for string theorists?

    25. Roman Oliynyk says:

      Peter, just curious about your opinion on John Moffat’s Modified Gravity. This is one of many attempts on cosmological solution. But it does not pretend to be a theory of everything, and at current level of experimental data it feels to me like one that does not over-reach into wild fantasy land (string theory). Any comments?

      Anon, I don’t agree with the statement that ‘SUSY experts will be among the first to figure out whatever new theory that is to be established’. They sure exercised in esoteric mathematics a lot, but your statement would be correct only if the new theory math was closely related to string theory, which is unlikely.

    26. Peter Woit says:

      David,

      As a very rough guess at number of string theorists, about 500 or so have tended to show up at the big annual conference, and that’s a sizable percentage of the total. A total number of 2000 is probably at least the right order of magnitude. One problem with this question is that it’s often rather unclear these days what it means to be a “string theorist”.

      Someday I’ll write about the latest data, but in recent years in the US very few string theorists have been getting tenure track positions. There are however quite a few postdocs in string theory, but these are temporary jobs. As far as permanent positions goes, I suspect the situation is better in Europe, where hiring is traditionally not so trendy (in the US, string theory is not the trend these days).

    27. Peter Woit says:

      Roman,

      In general I’m not that interested in or expert about gravity questions. No opinion at all about Moffat’s gravity theory.

      There was a time when susy was the hot new mathematical idea and the smartest young theorists were the ones all over it. That was about 30 years ago though. By now, it’s an extremely old, very conventional (but not successful) idea that is worked out in detail in all the textbooks. Becoming a “SUSY expert” just requires having spent some time with grad-student level material at some point during the last 30 years. This isn’t necessarily an indication that you’re going to be an innovator…

    28. Peter Woit says:

      anon2,

      Thanks. I pretty much can’t stand watching myself or listening to myself, but anyone who wants to hear me say the usual things, at a time of the height of the “String Wars”, might want to take a look.

      Much more interesting video is now available though, since a correpondent tells me that Graeme Segal lecturing on QFT at Bonn is starting to be available on video. I hope to find time soon to watch and may write more about this after that:

      http://www.mpim-bonn.mpg.de/node/3365

    29. Shantanu says:

      BTW I looked at the NSF grants in theoretical gravitat and almost all of them are on binary black hole or black-neutron star simulations along with a few more on LQG.

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