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Grantwriting: You Should Already Be Done Thinking.

24 April 2014

At my last institution I had, like I do now, a weird position. I was hired to be the concierge systems engineer for the chief of staff, who was a physician and chemist and university professor of medicine and of chemical engineering. He had about a 20 year uninterrupted history of R01-level funding. He treated me like a post-doc for about a year and a half, and then promoted me to PI. He’s the one who taught me to write grants. My doctoral advisor never once asked me to write  paper or a grant, and publishing was not a requirement of my program.

What he told me, when writing my first grant (of which he was PI, and I was key personnel, and which was triaged), was that when writing a grant, you need to be done already. All of the thought, all of the innovation, all of the ingenuity and inspiration, all the things we think of when we think of cool science, all that needs to be done before you write the grant. Granted work isn’t the sexy part of science. All the dreaming and imagining happens before you get any money. Before you do any writing.

The grant describes all the innovation and exciting idea-work you’ve already done, and lays out what you will do to prove your imagination is right or wrong (but really, right). You can’t write a grant to go dream big dreams. You write a grant to pay for labor. That was my PI’s instruction: “A good grant reduces everything to labor. You should already be done thinking. Now it’s all just work.”

That line stuck in my head hard. “Reduce everything to labor.” Convince the reviewers that all you have to do is collect samples and data. Apply your formulas. Write the code that makes the conceptual model come alive. All the concepts are already laid out. The hypotheses are there, just waiting to have the statistical tests applied. All you need to do is hire some people to wrangle the numbers, statistic the stats. The best grants are about the boring work you need to do to prove your exciting idea.

Your idea which is already polished, shiny, and perfected. Which will reimagine the universe and upend the current state of knowledge in the field. Which will transform society and make children smarter and better behaved and adults healthier and more attractive. Which will make pointers fetch and retrievers herd. Which will undo the intricate puzzles of mystery and majesty in the heavens and lay waste to human ignorance.

But which, crucially, is already done.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ian permalink
    24 April 2014 19:04

    That strikes me as both wise and utterly depressing.

  2. Syd permalink
    25 April 2014 12:25

    Writing grants is NOT science. A relentless pursuit of truth is.

    Grant writing, where your peers judge, with the help of funding agency bureaucrats, how well your research would pan out can be one of the reasons so many leave the field of science or abandon academia.

    The system equates scientific success with winning grants, so it selects and promotes those who mastered acquiring external funding. Whether published results are reproducible becomes secondary to winning grants. Big grants engender even bigger grants. The rich labs get richer. The pursuit of truth is replaced with the pursuit of dollars and flashy publications that help secure yet another grant. This destructive, self-reinforcing cycle simply promotes those that are good at it, and weeds out everyone else. Publish or perish, get funded or get the boot.

    I see this cyclical process as a marketing exercise. For most of the grants that I had, it was about who I knew as much as it was about the science. I’m just being honest here. It takes about a decade to build a solid reputation in the field, assuming that you already have a slew of publications, have networked like crazy at meetings, given many oral presentations, been active in scientific societies and have a major advisor who has creds. That being said, grants serve an important role in the scientific process. They provide a mechanism for a researcher to display the clear thinking, creativity, planning, and ability to communicate ideas critical to scientific success. The process of writing a grant forces the scientist to take vague ideas and craft them into a well designed project that is clearly articulated.

    I know many brilliant scientists who weren’t successful at obtaining a lot of grants. They simply weren’t able to market their research ideas in an appealing way. I don’t think that grant writing is anything more than a means to an end. It should not define ones scientific identity. Having ideas is one thing, putting them on to paper in a way that makes somebody want to give you money for them, is quite another thing altogether. The latter is a skill that isn’t developed without collaboration, mentoring, and discussion with peers.

  3. Jeff permalink
    1 June 2014 10:30

    great thoughts, I need to remember that logic, just give me the money to get the work done
    – it often feels like pitching a new product to some investing company, researchers should get training in corporate sales

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