Today I had a conversation with someone who is in the middle of a science career, and is having trouble with getting grants funded.

It seems like there are a lot of us mid-career people who are having struggles of various kinds. My goal is to help with those, in any way I can.

In this particular conversation, we touched on the topic of the importance of having papers published in “reputable” journals to get your grant funded. Journals like Nature, Science, PNAS, and etc.

I ended up with a somewhat contrary view to the “conventional wisdom” on this point.

I’ll explain it with an example. Let’s say you’re on a study section, and you have two grants to compare. All other things are equal (and you do not know either author personally), but this:

Grant A was written by a senior scientist who has had 9 Nature/Science papers over the past 10 years on the subject. He is proposing to continue extending the work, by studying new molecular players that may be involved in the pathway. It shows some promise for moving the field forward, but is not revolutionary.

Grant B was written by a newer scientist who has no Nature/Science papers, but does have one paper in a specialist journal on his brand new approach for solving a disease, and in his grant he’s proposing to further develop this promising new approach.

Which one would get you more enthusiastic? More of the same, or something new?

For better or worse, we are a society that thrives on newness and innovation. It has taken us very far (and occasionally led us into troubles, like inventing the atomic bomb). We like the new, and we’re not so keen on the same and the boring.

Given what I just wrote, I would be hard pressed to see how the first proposal would get more enthusiasm than the second – despite the lack of Nature/Science papers for the second grant.

This is especially true because the senior researcher has been working on the topic for 10 years. Let’s say that topic is Cancer (a favorite of mine, since it claimed my father’s life). Now, if the senior researcher had 10 years to work on it already, and he’s only made “decent” progress – but no big leaps – it starts making a reviewer wonder if it wouldn’t be better to invest in a new approach.

I believe this is the greatest challenge that lies in waiting for mid-career investigators. At first, your work is often seen as being novel and new by study sections. But after your second or third funded grant on the subject, it starts growing stale. It just isn’t exciting anymore.

Therefore, I’d argue that the number of high-profile publications is actually less important than the amount of (feasible) innovation present. I think that taking your field in a new direction is a far more interesting thing to most reviewers than just having a bunch of great publications.

So, if you are having mid-career funding challenges, think about the science that you’ve been doing, and ask yourself: has it grown a bit stale? Or is it fresh and new? If it is stale, how could you renew it?

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BTW – I’m not saying that “selling” something new is easy. It never is. That’s what “Marketing Your Science” is all about. (And, yes, I’ll finish that book someday, after I’ve finished some of the many other projects I have going on).

4 thoughts

  1. Actually, a mid career scholar with a bunch of high profile articles who proposes something innovative is going to look really exciting. Because not only do they have a good idea, but they have evidence that they have been able to turn their previous good ideas into actual contributions to knowledge that are publishable in highly respected journals.

    And that is the winning combination.

    So the question is, are you sticking with the safe thing and resting on your laurels? Or are you taking your experience and ability and really making a contribution?

    1. Joe – I agree of course. Having both innovation plus high profile papers is ideal. But my point was that a lot of people tend to focus solely on the “high profile papers” part, to the exclusion of other things, such as being innovative. I was using an example with two extremes to illustrate the limits. Obviously, many factors are important, but my example shows that having a bunch of high profile papers is not going to give you an automatic “in” to funding. Nor does lack of high profile papers automatically exclude you from funding.

    1. Elissa – Thanks for the comment.

      I don’t set the funding priorities – so, for the purposes of getting grants funded, it doesn’t matter “what” those priorities are – it just matters that we understand them to the best of our abilities. My goal in this article wasn’t to weigh in on innovation versus replication or journal reputation, except as it relates to getting a grant funded or not.

      Now, in terms of my own opinions (which are irrelevant to effective grant writing): the problem is that many studies don’t deserve the investment of replication. There is a lot of work out there that becomes outmoded as soon as a new discovery comes along. If we tried to replicate all of it first — only to have all that effort vaporize as soon as it is outmoded — it would be an enormous waste. It would slow innovation.

      Studies that come out with groundbreaking new data or ideas usually do get replicated, because they are important enough to warrant the investment.

      I’m not sure how else this could be done. It is a marketplace of ideas, and unless humans or our culture makes a fundamental change, I think that the innovators will always have an edge in that marketplace. I don’t mind that outcome, because I enjoy innovating a lot more than I enjoy doing the same old thing.

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