Found History

by Tom Scheinfeldt

Forty Signs of Rain

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This post may be even shorter than usual. I’m writing from Breckenridge, CO where I’m enjoying a couple (very cold) days of skiing. (The conditions are epic in case you’re wondering.) But I didn’t bring my laptop, so I’m writing this on my Blackberry. It seems to be working fine, but I don’t think I’ll have the patience or thumb strength for more than a couple hundred words or so.

Once again this semester I’m teaching a history of science-focused Western Civ. survey, and once again I’m using Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt to try to shake my students of their preconceptions about scientific progress and Western exceptionalism. I love Robinson, but I have read YRS several times now, so instead of YRS, I brought another of Robinson’s books with me on my vacation: Forty Signs of Rain, the first book in a trilogy about climate change in the very near future.

So far, FSR isn’t nearly as brilliant as YRS. It’s not even as creative as Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. Nevertheless, even in the first 150 pages of this comparatively unremakable effort, Robinson’s seemingly endless font of knowledge is revealed again in an extended passage about the NSF panel review process.

A lot of public historians and digital humanists are very rightly baffled by the grant application and evaluation processes of NEH, IMLS, and other federal grant-making agencies. It is indeed a pretty arcane process, especially to the novice, but one good way to wrap your head around it is to serve as a panelist for a program in your field. I have been lucky enough to serve on a couple panels for NEH and IMLS, and in addition to a great intellectual experience and a fantastic way to make new friends in your field, serving as a panelist is probably the best way to learn what makes proposals succeed and what makes them fail. I guarantee your own grant proposals will be vastly improved by the experience. If you get a chance (the agencies frequently put out calls for panelists), I’d jump on it.

If you can’t serve on a panel, however, take a look at Forty Signs of Rain. Ignoring the intrigue and vaguely dirty progam officer that assist the broader plot line (I assure you, in my experience, actual program officers are among the most honest, impartial, and helpful people), in the first half of the book Robinson provides a very good account of the proposal and peer review process at NSF, which is more or less the same as that at NEH and IMLS. I’m not saying it’s right on the money, but as an easy and readable glimpse at the grant making process (especially pp. 134-145, where Robinson describes the panel room itself), it’s definitely worth a read. And if you’ve never read anything by Robinson, this is as good a reason as any to get started.

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