The ‘Dark Art’ of Grant Writing … as it exists today.

I’m doing my tenure package now, and I’ve recently been working on the section where you list your current, pending, and unfunded grants.  I’ve got a whopping long list of grants submitted in the last few years- and I suppose I didn’t realize quite how long this list actually was until I was forced to summarize it all in the same spot.

This morning I came upon this post from writedit in my Google reader, and I promptly followed the links to read the original article in PLOS Biology, entitled ‘Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research’: The granting system turns young scientists into bureaucrats and then betrays them.

Let me just start by letting these lovely folks speak for me (you really only need to watch about the first 30 seconds or so):

There is quite a lot to talk about in this article, but right now I just want to focus on this one part:

After more than 40 years of full-time research in developmental biology and genetics, I wrote my first grant and showed it to those experienced in grantsmanship. They advised me my application would not succeed. I had explained that we didn’t know what experiments might deliver, and had acknowledged the technical problems that beset research and the possibility that competitors might solve problems before we did. My advisors said these admissions made the project look precarious and would sink the application. I was counseled to produce a detailed, but straightforward, program that seemed realistic—no matter if it were science fiction. I had not mentioned any direct application of our work: we were told a plausible application should be found or created. I was also advised not to put our very best ideas into the application as it would be seen by competitors—it would be safer to keep those ideas secret.

For the uninitiated- Yes- this is pretty much how it really works (save the secrecy thing, I’ve never dealt with that). Grant writing has become this specialized art form in which you produce a moderately interesting (but not too far out there) proposal containing some straightforward experiments, that may or may not be medically relevant – but you will make sure they at least sound relevant to human health.  Preferably you have a little of each aim done already, so you can show that finishing this thing will be easier than shooting fish in a barrel. Your goal is to get a review that says… the work is interesting, will produce results, and contains no obvious pitfalls… I probably put these in reverse order of importance. Those of us that have spent significant time writing or reviewing grants recently know these comments backwards and forwards. We can recognize these points in a grant application in our sleep. Great. Good. I’ve mastered this. But something that I hate about the fact that I’ve mastered the ‘dark art’ of making some marginally interesting, plodding, results-guaranteed experiments sound foolproof and exciting is this:

Even worse, sustained success is most likely when risky and original topics are avoided and projects tailored to fit prevailing fashions—a fact that sticks a knife into the back of true research [5]. As Sydney Brenner has said, “Innovation comes only from an assault on the unknown” [6].

I’ve written about some topics that might have been less than totally exciting, using straightforward approaches- simply because these are fool proof (and I know that some of you will argue that fool-proofness is key when using taxpayer dollars, and there is an argument to be made for that, sure). But in doing this I’ve had to put some projects that might really break the mold- the projects that really make me stick my nose in the incubator at the crack of dawn and look at those plates, the projects that make me want to drag my middle-aged backside out of bed at 8 am on a Saturday morning so I can see the result- onto the back burner. Not because those ideas and projects won’t ultimately work, not because the topics aren’t super duper important- but because those projects involve some risks and aren’t a 98% sure thing.

Those foolproof projects, they make great proposals- they make results- but do they make great science? Great groundbreaking science? Sometimes perhaps. But I bet that a lot of great science falls victim to the current safety group-think we have going on in grant writing today. That thought absolutely breaks my heart- and it should break the heart of every scientist that works in the current system.

(***and This just in… the new restructured application for NIH grants with the shorter page limit has been announced (Drugmonkey is on it first, as usual).  Now you can do a 12 page fool-proof proposal as opposed to suffering on and on for 25 pages!)

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One thought on “The ‘Dark Art’ of Grant Writing … as it exists today.

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

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