For years I’ve been teaching that grants aren’t a lottery. I’ve been teaching that if you write a sufficiently good grant, you can skew the odds enough in your favor to have a good chance of success. I’ve taught that because I’ve seen some people use the “grants as a lottery” attitude as a motivator to write a whole bunch of not-well-planned grants, submitting them almost willy nilly to “improve the odds.” This clogs the system, and rarely improves the odds much. At one extreme, I know of a person who submitted 29 proposals to get only one funded. That’s in no way, shape, or form a sustainable practice. Imagine if everyone did that? Scary.

I’ve always said there is some randomness. But a few incidents happen that now force me to eat a bit of crow and admit that it’s becoming more uncontrollable.

I worked with a client, let’s call her “Jane” for the sake of privacy. She wrote one of the best postdoc fellowships I’ve seen in years. It wasn’t just me that thought that, but a whole panel of professors who looked at it agreed that it was good.

It just came back “unscored.” For those unfamiliar with the NIH system, that means that the review panel didn’t even discuss it at their meeting, because they didn’t think that it was in the most competitive group.

Proposals are given preliminary scores of 1-9 (1 is best) on parameters of Investigator, Environment, Significance, Innovation, and Approach. Her preliminary scores on these parameters mostly ranged from 1-3, with a few 4’s and 5’s. The average was around 2.5. A pretty good score by all rights. It was shocking that this wasn’t even discussed, and if it had been, the score would have been better; one of the reviewers clearly hadn’t read it that well, and made several incorrect statements. They likely would have been corrected in a study section discussion.

This is a case of randomness affecting what should have been a discussed and scored proposal (if not funded). I’ve been seeing more and more of those cases, though this has been the most extreme case to date.

In other words, with more and more good proposals, randomness is playing a bigger factor. That’s why I have to eat a bit of crow.

This is still no excuse for submitting a bunch of hurried, half-assed proposals. Your odds now are lower than ever that that kind of rushed and poorly written proposal will get a payoff. Remember the 1 in 29 number. The only reason this person got away with it is because his department gave him tenure points for trying (i.e. rewarding failure). In any situation where you actually must get a grant to survive or sustain a research program, this is not the way to go.

Despite the situation I discussed above, the solution is still, more than ever, to write the very best proposal you can. I’m not encouraging excessive delay or perfectionism – no proposal is perfect. Yet I am encouraging spending a good amount of time to develop a really good proposal, getting great feedback from one or more mentors, and doing that in a sustainable way (i.e. 2-3 big, well-written proposals per year is plenty for most people).

The good news is this: in assessing the reviews that my client got, all the critiques are fixable. Some of the concerns have already been addressed by her ongoing work. She stands a pretty good chance of getting this on the next round. Even if not, as long as she produces high-quality proposals like that, she’ll soon have funding of one of her other proposals. You can do that with a good proposal. You can’t with a rushed, poorly written proposal. With an average score of 2.5, it would be easy to move to 1.5 or better, which is in the fundable range. If you had an average score of 5+, then moving to 1.5 or better is highly unlikely.

I’ve been developing a new framework for assessing your “odds” and for maximizing them in your favor. I’ll be sharing it with you on an upcoming webinar. Make sure to sign up for my e-mail newsletter to get notified about that.

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