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.