Go bold or go boring?

In my adventures on twitter-  the following question was posed…..

Go bold or go boring?….R01 question of the day.

Although deceptively simple- this is really such a tough choice. Why? Because extremes in either direction, or applications perceived as extreme in either direction, are gonna get killed by reviewers. At least in my not-so-limited-anymore experience.

Personally, I favor the bold. I can’t help it, the red-head in me is just like that. I like to try to think ahead of (or in a different way than) the mainstream in my field. I like the challenge of an important problem off the major direction of the field is, and/or applying new tools if they are really better or offer a way to successfully approach a problem that was previously intractable. Besides seeing the actual progress that can be made- the intellectual satisfaction that I get from doing things this way- is part of what drives me to do basic science.  I know that you all are probably saying DrDrA- NO DUH… this is how … and why… we all do science…

But hold on to your enthusiasm for a moment- because I respectfully suggest that this is all very nice day-to-day in the lab, and when writing papers… being on the cutting edge in a grant proposal, is a very tricky place to be. You can get burned by boldness, especially as a new investigator. You will end up hearing the criticisms- ‘cutting edge but too ambitious’, either this way or disguised in various other language. Reviewers may doubt your ability to carry out the proposed experiments- so it works in your favor to provide preliminary data for every cutting edge (indeed every technique regardless of how cutting edge) technique you propose. If you are going to bold- it is key to make sure your rationale is ironclad- and that you write the grant so that the reviewers can’t find any holes in it (come to think of it, you should write every grant like this).  Another problem with bold is that you might find that reviewers don’t understand your proposal- which, of course, may be partly (or totally) a reflection of the clarity and simplicity with which you explained (or didn’t) your ideas. Now for the confessional portion of this post- I’ve been burned by ‘too bold’ and I’ve been stubborn about learning to tone it down.

You can err way too far on the side of boring- and that is one giant pitfall. Self-explanatory. No reviewer wants to read flat out boring from start to finish- and when they think it is dull- they will tell you so in no uncertain terms… ‘does not generate excitement for this reviewer’… . Hmmm. That’s the kiss of death, I think.

Boring- can be a matter of opinion though. I have written one grant proposal that I thought was the most boring thing I had ever either written or read. And while the reviewers grumbled just a little about their limp enthusiasm on the subject matter- they unanimously agreed that they couldn’t find any holes in it- and it got the best score I’ve gotten so far. My idea of hugely boring and their idea of hugely boring- were clearly different. Or maybe I gave them a hugely boring proposal supported by so much preliminary data that they couldn’t find the escape hatch to a bad score, who knows.

My grant applications have contained some mixture of bold and boring, and it has been tricky for me to get the balance quite right. I have favored the bold in terms of subject area and part of the approach, and other parts of the approach have been on the more boring side. I dislike the endless re-writing of proposals, but it has allowed me to tweek this balance in one direction or another as suggested/implied in the reviews and to round out the application as a whole. I find that the amount of bold or boring that is passable during peer review also depends on the granting agency that I’m applying to- just because the review panels can sometimes be made of individuals with vastly different expertise. I try to adjust content and explanation, as well as bold/boring balance for one audience or another- so far I’ve been successful with one audience and not the other- so obviously I’m still working that out.

How did I start out figuring out what the bold/boring ratio should be in early grants? Great question, … I think just by endlessly watching people who were highly successful grant writers, by not having any pride when it came to having colleagues critique my own grant drafts, and by trial and error. Grant writing is a learned skill (sales, really.), it is totally different from paper and book chapter writing. Get the best advice you can from people who are really good at it, and watch how they balance bold vs. boring.


11 thoughts on “Go bold or go boring?

  1. I have always erred on the side of bold. And yes, this definitely delayed the time frame for receiving my first R01. But once you have a bit of a track record for coming through on your bold proposals, you definitely receive more leeway from your peers on review panels.

  2. One needs to differentiate between being bold and taking off in a new-direction. It’s one thing to say “here’s a major step forward in Mango slicing” if you have recognized expertise in Mango slicing. It’s another thing to say “I have an idea on how to fix all the screw-ups who don’t know how to slice Papaya.” (*) In my experience, this is where people run into trouble. The Papaya Mafia (also known as the Papaya study section) is unlikely to let a Mango slicer come in and tell them they’re doing everything wrong. Bold within one’s field is often (but not always) supported (**), while bold in someone else’s field is usually trashed.

    * I strongly support taking ideas from Mango slicing to Papaya slicing. I’m just discussing the problems with study section.

    ** In my experience, study sections care more about “feasibility” and “significant” than about “bold” or “boring”. Often bold is trashed because they don’t see it as feasible while boring is trashed because they don’t see it as significant. Since significance is easier to BS than feasibility, boring often does better than bold.

    Also, don’t forget – once you get your grant, you actually have VERY wide leeway in what you do with it. So be boring, lay it all out, then go do something bold with the money.

  3. qaz- You make a VERY important point, that took me a while to learn- in here…

    Also, don’t forget – once you get your grant, you actually have VERY wide leeway in what you do with it. So be boring, lay it all out, then go do something bold with the money.

    The point is to write the grant so that you will get funded, this may or may not in the end include the mechanics of how you will accomplish the goals of the grant. It took me a while to learn to write like this- and I hate doing it because on some level- if there is a better way- why not just write the better way?!

  4. thanks drdra

    I think qaz hit the nail on the head…

    bold isn’t so scary when you can show strong preliminary results demonstrating it is feasible.

    For this particular grant I am working on, I decided to back off the really innovative exciting aim…mainly because while I am convinced it is feasible, it is so on the edge, I have to show more than I have to convince reviewers. So I will work on it in the meanwhile and spin it in to the revision, or perhaps in to a grant of its own. 🙂

  5. I’m guessing this is going to be very strongly study-section dependent. Mostly I think you want to present strong preliminary evidence that the experiments you propose are certain to move the field forward in a direction the field is interested in going. In this context “boring” means “doesn’t really move the field forward” and “bold” means “drags the field somewhere it didn’t really want to go” or even worse, “bold” means “probably won’t work”. In particular, “bold” very easily slides over into “arrogant” especially if the boldness derives from your stunningly clever insight that the study section wasn’t smart enough to think of themselves. Much better if “bold” derives from something completely unique to you personally, like some reagent no-one else has ever had, some technique no-one else is doing etc. but these can be trappy attitude-wise too.

    An advantage to erring on the side of boring, is the expectation that if it’s boring to me, it’s because I’m very familiar with it and have been working and thinking about it for years (and am therefore also very good at it). For the study section that has been preoccupied with their own different material, this will seem less boring to them, or so I hope. Likewise if it seems “bold” to me, it will probably seem “crazy” to the study section.

  6. Pingback: How to Write Grant Proposals « Successful Researcher

  7. Pingback: Harms and Company Consulting » Archives » Views on proposal writing

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