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'P' Is for Petroleum

Dear Readers,

Sometimes change is hard.

For 52 years, the Petroleum Research Fund (PRF) has been an important funding source for chemists. The fund, which is managed by the American Chemical Society (ACS), is worth more than a half-billion dollars, and last year it supported about $25 million in research. PRF offers separate competitions for scientists at Ph.D.-granting institutions and undergraduate institutions, starter grants for new faculty members, and small colloquium grants intended to fund travel for foreign presenters. They also offer summer research supplements for grant recipients. Last year, the fund made 498 grants--even more than NSF's chemistry division.

PRF got its start in 1944, when seven oil companies that had invested in an oil-cracking technology created a perpetual trust to reduce antitrust scrutiny by the government. ACS was specified as the fund's beneficiary. The first grants were made from the fund's income in 1954. In 2000, the trust was terminated and all the assets passed to ACS. The fund now represents about half of ACS's assets.

Now that the trust has been liquidated, ACS has total control over the money. But the terms of the agreement with the original trust required the society to honor the provisions in the fund's founding document, which called on the fund "to advance science education and research in the petroleum field." Somewhere in there, says Christopher Hollinsed, current PRF director and former director of academic programs at DuPont, is the word "exclusively."

But later in that same sentence, the trust document muddies the waters; it is enough, it says, for the research to serve as "a basis for subsequent research directly connected with" the petroleum field. That gives ACS a lot of leeway, and in recent years ACS has made good use of it.

Recently, PRF has supported a wide range of fundamental chemistry research, some of it only loosely connected to petroleum. The criteria, says Hollinsed, are "open to interpretation" by the board. In a December 2005 article in Chemical & Engineering News, Hollinsed said, "PRF sometimes found itself funding research not clearly related to its mission." Hollinsed recounted to me a conversation in which a young scientist told him she had been advised to send her proposal to PRF because, as her adviser put it, “PRF will fund anything." "I found that distressing," Hollinsed says.

In 2005, things started to change. "We got a large increase in proposals," says Hollinsed--more than the staff could easily handle. The solution? Narrow the scope of research supported by the fund. "The board decided to focus more on the original purpose," says Hollinsed. "Beginning in 2006," wrote Linda Wang, C&E News assistant editor, in a December 2005 article, "grant applicants will have to include a statement in their proposals explaining why their research is both fundamental and related to the petroleum field." Starting with applications reviewed at the upcoming September meeting, this will take the form of a 100-word statement at the beginning of the proposal. There's one exception to the petroleum requirement: The founding document says that petroleum "substitutes" fall within the program's scope, so alternative energy research remains fair game.

Hollinsed and his staff did everything they could to get the word out about the changes. They issued press releases and revised the program description on the ACS Web site. C&E News described the changes in an article that was hard to miss by anyone who reads the magazine. There wasn't much else they could do. Still, some people didn't get the message.

PRF holds three meetings a year to review proposals; the first is in May. At the May meeting, 623 applications were considered and 166 of them--36% of all applications--were judged to be "out of trust"--that is, outside the scope of the program as it is currently construed. It is impossible to be sure about how many of the applicants remained ignorant of the changes in the PRF program, but Hollinsed figures that it was a majority of that 166. "I bet it's a fairly small number who knew but still didn't meet the new standard," he says.

That isn't the only message folks aren't getting. PRF also made the switch this year to electronic submission--but, says Hollinsed, they're still getting applications on paper. In past years, when they still accepted paper applications, some applicants submitted on forms as many as 3 years out of date.

In late May, 166 chemists got e-mails or phone calls informing them that their applications had been rejected--or, rather, charitably had not been rejected. Instead, PRF made the decision to withdraw them on behalf of the applicants. This allows these scientists to resubmit during the next cycle; otherwise, under PRF rules, rejected applicants are not allowed to resubmit for another year.

Reactions to PRFs e-mails and phone calls have been all over the place, Hollinsed says. Some errant submitters apologized meekly; others screamed into their telephones. But none of them have a leg to stand on. It's their own fault. These people didn't do their homework.

There's no excuse for submitting a grant proposal without meticulously reviewing all the information about the program, including the fine print and recent changes, and talking to the program officer. Even if you applied to the same program last year, you have to make sure there haven't been any changes since then. PRF isn't special in this respect; programs change scope all the time. So do your homework and change with them.

Q: Dear GrantDoctor,

I have been looking for funding to support the writing of climate- and drought-related curriculum units for high school level teachers. I would like the funding to help me pay for a graduate student working for the next 6 months.

Thank you.

Anne Browning-Aiken, Ph.D.
Environmental Policy and Community Collaboration
Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy and Sustainability of Semi-Arid Hydrology and Riparian Areas (SAHRA)
University of Arizona

A: Dear Anne,

Most people in your position would submit an application to NSF's Instructional Materials Development (IMD) program. Your project would fit nicely into the Instructional Materials for Students component, which "supports the creation and substantial revision of comprehensive curricula and supplemental instructional materials that are research-based; enhance classroom instruction pre-K-12; and reflect standards for science, mathematics, and technology education developed by national professional organizations."

The focus on educational standards is very important. Check out the Benchmarks established by AAAS's Project 2061, and the National Research Council's National Science Education Standards, for more information. You will also need to design and describe a sound assessment strategy; the National Research Council publication contains useful information on assessment. NSF also has some excellent assessment resources.

Also important: a sound dissemination plan. A bonus, in reviewers' eyes, is a focus on workforce diversity: "Particularly encouraged are projects that develop and implement research-based instructional materials that ameliorate achievement gaps between student populations and lead to improved understanding of, and participation in, STEM disciplines by members of underrepresented groups."

For an example of a similar project recently funded by the IMD program, check out Steven McGee's "Journey to El Yunque,", which explores the effects of Hurricane Georges on the Caribbean National Forest. Note, in particular, the focus on diversity (a bilingual Web site), on science-education standards, and on the establishment of productive relationships--in this case, with NASA.

The difficulty, of course is your final phrase: "the next 6 months." Unless you can find the money within your own institution, it's very difficult to find funding for a project like this on such short notice. In future, allow a year, at least.

Best of Luck,

The GrantDoctor

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