Most people know January 15 as the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Among social scientists, however, the date has another meaning: It’s the deadline for grant proposals at the National Science Foundation.
January 15, 2013, dawned cold in Chicago, but the kinetic energy in Fione Dukes’s office could have rivaled the university’s steam plant. Dukes oversee grant proposals to NSF on behalf of the university’s high-powered Anthropology and Political Science Departments.
In an ordinary year, Dukes has the applications all but done by January 15. But this year, just 24 hours before the deadline, NSF revised its requirements. With a flicker of federal servers, the application form metamorphosed. New questions appeared. Completed applications reverted to incomplete ones.
So as faculty and graduated students streamed in and out, Dukes kept their plans for fieldwork trips and new books from vaporizing. She triaged the damage, rallied the students, called NSF, got clarifications, and finessed 19 proposals through the system before the day was out.
The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency founded by Congress to “promote the progress of science.” That broad mission comes with an equally large budget—nearly $9 billion in 2012. Twenty percent of all federal support for basic research comes from this bulging coffer.
Now in her fifty-first year at the university, Dukes has overseen more than 500 NSF proposals over the last fifteen years. Her official title, “business manager,” grossly understates her unique insights into the caprices of this essential funder. A better title might be “grant wrangler” or “interpreter of federalese” or even “the Daedalus of deadlines.”
“I have done this so long that the whole university thinks I am the NSF person,” Dukes laughs. And indeed, that perception extends well beyond the university. A researcher at MIT recently wrote to beg Dukes’s help with a NSF proposal. (She diplomatically declined.)
Completing an NSF proposal is a little like passing a thread through the twisted insides of a seashell. “Each NSF program has its own rules and regulations about what the student is supposed to do,” Dukes explains. “Then there’s what NSF expects from all applications. Then you have to stay updated on all the changes.”
“The students all think she’s wonderful,” explains Anne Ch’ien, graduate student coordinator for the Anthropology Department. “These are big, complicated applications—the emperor of all applications—and Fione makes them come together. It is not an easy job by any means, and I could not imagine anyone doing it better.”
“The grant process just feels so overwhelming,” says Betsy Sinclair, an assistant professor of political science. “Fione says, ‘Don’t worry. Just tell me about the project.’ She does the forms, writes the budget, everything.”
Despite the high-stakes deadlines, Dukes claims to enjoy NSF proposals because of the comradery that develops while guiding applicants through the labyrinth. “I really get to spend time with the students. Without someone to help them get through this ‘administrivia,’ they’d be totally lost.”
For many too, Fione did more than just grants and business administration. “Had it not been for her I certainly never would have finished my first book, achieved tenure, or become the successful scholar I have managed to become. She was my friend and confidant during some tough personal and professional years,” writes Melissa Harris-Perry, now Professor of Political Science at Tulane, “I've never met another university administrative professional quite like her. She may have broken the mold.”
A Chicago native, Dukes was originally hired as a clerk in 1962 in part because of her speed as a typist— a blinding 113 words a minute on an Olympia manual. Dukes was so fast at the keyboard, in fact, that she could retype form letters faster than they could be mimeographed. She also test-drove new models of typewriter prior to their purchase by the university. “Most of them broke,” she recalls.
“That’s why I still get a lot of work done,” Dukes says. “Typing fast.”
Perhaps that’s true, but her encouraging mien does not hurt, either. “I’m an old lady with an old-fashioned saying,” she says. “I tell students, ‘There are only really two responses that a funder can give you. It’s either going to be “yes” or “no.” You might as well try and see if it’s going to be yes.’”