Recently, NASA released the list of NIAC funded research proposals. The NIAC grant is meant to fund pretty-out-there space tech concepts, which I think is excellent…in principle.

However, as I’ve mentioned before, some math and a little thinking exposes a nasty downside to grants like NIAC.

First, the math: the stage 1 NIAC grants award $100,000 to twelve projects. That’s $1.2 million towards space tech, right?

Not quite. Each of those twelve successful PIs and who knows how many unfunded ones each spent a large chunk of time writing a proposal for this grant. I’ve seen lab-mates working on these proposals, and they aren’t something you shoot off in a day. They are long. They are intense. They consume your life for weeks. So, lets assume the average NIAC proposal takes someone 20 hours of work.  Lets say there were 500 proposals. Since these are highly trained people – advanced graduate students, post docs, or professors, their time is worth a lot of money, lets go with $40/hr.

Thus the amount of value poured into the attempt to get these grants would be 1000 proposals * 20 hours/proposal * $40/hour = $800,000. That’s 2/3 of the total amount awarded down the drain.  While my numbers are probably off, they aren’t off by enough to change the point – having technologists spend time to compete for grants through proposals is a huge waste of human capitol.

Now, a little thinking: On surface, it sounds a lot more legitimate to say “yes, we’re funding this excellent concept” than “yeah, we’re funding this guy because he’s done good stuff in the past and we have a good feeling about him.”

But what if the PI realizes that the project is a dead end? (As is so often the case with awesome crazy research.) The PI can’t then (on the books) use that money to fund the some other project he thnks will actually go somewhere. Instead he’s forced to keep putting time and effort into the dead-end project, because the grant funds the project, not the PI.

I’m not arguing whether the grant money should be spent or not (that’s an interesting question) but simply that the current system is not a good way of distributing the funds.