That Feeling

You know that feeling? That feeling you get?
That feeling you get when you and your mate are climbing in the Andes and the weather closes in and before you know it you’ve slipped off an icy ledge and suffered a horrific impact fracture of the femur. And your mate climbs down to find you paralysed with pain and binds up your leg and starts to take you, stage by agonising stage, down the mountain but the weather gets worse and in the end, after lowering you over a blind precipice, he feels himself slipping, he can’t hold on and has to cut the rope. And you smash onto the ice below and lie there in agony waiting for the coldness to kill you. But you don’t die. Somehow you summon the will to move, the determination to drag yourself down the mountain where your mate, even if he has survived the storm, has probably decamped, giving you up for dead. Each dragging movement is excruciating. You can only keep going by setting minuscule goals: I’ll make it as far as that rock there, just out of reach. You can’t let yourself look further than the next rock, even though you know miles and miles of suffering lie ahead.
That feeling. That’s the one I mean.

Siula Grande – by Chloe.
A bit like the feeling you sometimes get when you’re writing a grant application. A bit. I had something of that feeling these past few weeks as I’ve been working, struggling with one. Not nearly so intense of course (not nearly!), but a shade, a shadow of what must have gone through Joe Simpson’s tortured mind during the descent of Siula Grande, superbly re-told in Touching the Void. But definitely something.
However, I have now reached the bottom of the mountain. Having endured the gruelling journey for many days, the task was finally completed this afternoon. 
And tomorrow I am off to Italy to sample something of the Renaissance and, hopefully, undergo something of a renaissance myself!
See you on the other side.

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23 Responses to That Feeling

  1. Bob O'Hara says:

    Um, I hope you don’t try any rock climbing in the Alps. You’re not in the right frame of mind for it.

  2. Alejandro Correa says:

    Hum,cof, cof, cof! I strange his commentary Dr. O’Hara, a statistic of his stature, is like comparing an earthquake of 1 grade to a 10.8 grade on the Richter scale. Or more another example: “an ant of a Mamouth”. I think that should weigh more situations or we will remove your Phd.

  3. Alejandro Correa says:

    I myself. That is to say a genius.

  4. Richard Wintle says:

    Alejandro – what on earth are you on about?
    Stephen – enjoy. And don’t watch the movie Alive any time soon.

  5. Grant Jacobs says:

    I have to admit your article confused me at first, reminding me of an uncle who died recently. He climbed in the Andes when he was younger, breaking both legs in a push to the summit on one of the big peaks. From memory it took over ten days to get off the mountain with two broken legs and to a hospital. (They’d trekked in with donkeys, etc.)
    I meant to write an obit on my blog, but feel the collective I’m in is too “science” focused to wing it.
    Have a good time in the Alps. I know what you mean about grant applications. I put in for one earlier this year, which I spent a month working on. If I get past round one (which I’ll learn in a couple of weeks) I’ll put another month into it. I’ve been trying to get this particular grant for years; it’s the only grant I’m aware of in NZ that is a good fit to my line of work, but unfortunately it’s also the most competitive to get. (I’m not alone in having spent many years trying to get one of this particular grant, as it’s wildly over-subscribed.) Unlike university staff I don’t get paid while I’m working on the applications. Watching “my” ideas appear to top-tier journals several years later is frustrating! I’d better not say what I think of the grant funding system 🙂 Hehe.
    Touching the Void is a hell of a read, thoroughly recommended. (No pun intended.)

  6. Alejandro Correa says:

    I’m an Autopoitic machine.

  7. Alejandro Correa says:


  8. Alejandro Correa says:


  9. Austin Elliott says:

    Grant wrote:
    bq. “I’d better not say what I think of the grant funding system 🙂 Hehe.”
    Don’t worry Grant, it’s almost certainly exactly what all the rest of us think of it too.
    I am reminded of “this recent Canadian study”: that said that for the cost of the peer-review dogfight grant awarding system they could simply have _given_ every eligible tenured academic in Canada Can $ 41,000.

  10. Alejandro Correa says:

    Richard Beca provides of best-great *Grant*.

  11. Richard Wintle says:

    Austin – I’d forgotten about that article. It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?
    I like the obvious corollary – that they shouldn’t bother reviewing grants, just award all of them at that rate. Probably not the best idea ever though.

  12. Richard P. Grant says:

    A bit like the feeling you sometimes get when you’re writing a grant application.
    Bloody hell Stephen, do the reviewers actually come round and smash your limbs with an ice-axe and poor ice-cubes down your crotch? Extreme Grant Applying, now on XBox and PS3.

  13. Austin Elliott says:

    _”I like the obvious corollary – that [funders] shouldn’t bother reviewing grants, just award all of them… Probably not the best idea ever though.”_
    Heh. I think what it implies for me is that more money should be spread out across the system in _”non-dog-eat-dog competition”_ ways. What happens now is that without a grant you can’t do anything at all. I would like to see everyone with a tenured job have a _”baseline”_ finding level to enable them to do some research/train a grad student. If you wanted to do more/bigger projects, then you would apply for grants, just as now.
    This is in effect what happened in the UK 25 yrs ago. It has the benefit, I think, of being rather more adaptable to _changes_ in funding (like during recessions).

  14. Richard Wintle says:

    Austin – is that still the case in the UK now, or was that something that was tried 25 years ago and didn’t persist?
    I think I just meant NSERC (the agency that is the subject of that paper). I wouldn’t propose that, say, all large-dollar federal infrastructure grants be funded without review (and at lower award levels). But your alternative is an interesting one… I wonder what changes it would make in the types of budget requests to granting agencies, if investigators could pretty much rely on having at least one pair of hands and some baseline funds available.

  15. Austin Elliott says:

    It was like that 25 yrs ago, Richard. Not now.
    When I started 25 yrs ago, typical outfit in UK academia was academic + half a technician (i.e. share of their time) + Ph.D. student. The technician was funded via the Dept, and the PhD student possibly via “Departmental” allocation from BBSRC (cf NSERC) or MRC, but possibly from charity or via Overseas Govt.
    People who were more ambitious applied for grants, so Reader (Assoc Prof) and Prof types usually had >1 PhD student, postdoc, and perhaps whole technician post.
    Nowadays, there are no Dept-funded technicians (the money was re-routed into the response mode grant pool), and rising cost of research means Dept money – £ 1K pa at best – is way short of adequate to do anything. So without grant funding you are in effect totally hamstrung. And many UK Depts specifically _bar_ people with no external grant funds from taking on “Dept quota” (Research council) PhD students. So we have basically a _”to them that hath, more shall be given”_ system.
    The old vanished system is said to have _”rewarded inefficiency”_ or _”fostered complacency”._ The trouble with the alternative we have now is that dropping funding rates throw it into total pandemonium, as everything depends absolutely on PIs being able to raise grant funds. So instead of the old _”rewarding inefficiency”_ we now have a system where grant funding rates are under 15% and most PIs will spend almost all their life writing grant applications. Whether that is _more_ efficient… well, you probably know my answer.

  16. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks for all the comments above.
    I was not in the Alps – the post was largely metaphorical, though the film Touching the Void, always struck me as a great lesson in what you can achieve if you just focus on your most immediate goals, however impossible the over-arching task may seem. It had come back to me in the final week or so of pulling my grant application together. I hadn’t meant it to sound too melodramatic.
    The problem with working on a grant as opposed to, say, a paper is that the effort may be almost entirely fruitless. A paper you will always—eventually—get published, but you never know whether a grant will be funded.
    You work hard to create a beautiful workable, hypothesis and then send it away for judgment. Most of the time, this happens:

    I am hoping that a picture of a sunlit tree has appeared, with a dog in attendance. I took this last weekend in Venice, which is where I went.
    (Just in case the photo fails to appear, you can find it here.)

  17. Stephen Curry says:

    Excellent – it has appeared!
    To pick up the later thread of the discussion, I agree whole-heartedly with Austin’s suggestion that anyone in a permanent position should have a basal level of funding which would allow them to maintain a small operation, with additional funds to be awarded competitively. This would allow the PI to work much more efficiently, developing the steady stream of preliminary data that are so necessary for opening up new project areas.

  18. Heather Etchevers says:

    Where do I sign the petition for that sort of mechanism? Currently where I work, only lab directors get a pittance that is loosely based on the number of full-time researchers in their group, that they can spend at their discretion. Said discretion is so discreet that it often does not involve consulting said researchers. But it’s such a trivial amount of money it doesn’t matter much. What I couldn’t do with even CAN$41K just for my own projects.
    Yes, I just got another grant rejected. Did that bitter note make it through?
    Congratulations, Stephen! Grant applications are indeed much like the idea that says it’s good to suffer from physical ailments so that you can appreciate the relief when the suffering stops. I think of asthma or childbirth, myself, but then again when I was bearing my first child I was thinking of mountain climbing, so it all kind of meets up.
    You’re saying that someone pisses on your beautiful workable hypotheses, eh? Yeah.

  19. Stephen Curry says:

    Where do I sign the petition for that sort of mechanism?
    Maybe we should start a petition, Heather… I guess we’ll get at least 3 signatures.

  20. Grant Jacobs says:

    Count me in on your petition, although I need a PI position first to make use of it…
    Heather, if it’s any consolation, my own grants generally get nowhere to my huge frustration. Long story, so I’ll keep it to myself. Nutshell is that I suspect I’m in the wrong country.
    I’d happily take the C41K as I can comfortably get work done on my own without the need for students! 🙂

  21. Ian Brooks says:

    Stephen, I am stading in the foothills right now, looking up sunlit peaks, blinding against the blue frozen skies, knowing that glory or death await. Perhaps both.
    The climb from base camp to here has been almost enjoyable. Companionship, sharing ideas, lots of reading and musing and that most wonderful of academic moments: the soupcon of guilt as one realised one has “wasted” a day just thinking and reading and dreaming ideas.
    But now the game is afoot and the slope is getting steeper. We’re almost at the point where we need to start roping together, but I can already see some companions finding excuses to return to camp…I fear I will face those towering peaks alone. Again. And simply, because it is likely I will not survive the trip I hope my name to be immortalized.
    “He tried. At least he bloody tried, you bastards”, carved above my empty grave.

  22. Stephen Curry says:

    Make sure to pack a GPS unit, Ian. So we’ll know where to locate the body. But good luck anyway!

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