I have an email list with some great people on it, who have been sending me some good questions that I’ll be answering here (are you on the list yet?  If not, you can join by filling your info on the upper left).

The first email I want to respond to  is not really a question, but a comment:

I feel that writing grant proposals is such a colossal
waste of time… and the ones that I have been forced to participate in,
I found to be borderline dishonest.

It is too bad that people have experiences like this.  But it is not totally surprising.

While I wouldn’t call grant writing my favorite activity, it doesn’t have to be an awful experience every time.

But, I do see that some people feel that to get grants they have to deceive.  If  I ever felt I had to resort to that I would find a different profession to retain my own sanity, rather than go down that road.

Any accomplishment based on deception is not an accomplishment.

It is possible to get grants without deception or trickery.  The same is true in any scientific endeavor – if you do great science, you don’t have to resort to any kind of deception or trickery.  But you do have to be effective in communicating how and why it is great.

For example, one of my graduate students defended his thesis last week.  Initially he gave a somewhat boring practice talk.

One problem was that he had a negative result for some work that consumed more than 8 months of his time.  That negativity infected his brain.  He thought since the result was negative, his reporting of it had to be a negative experience as well.  That people wouldn’t appreciate the negative result like they would a positive.

But the facts are the facts.  It is all how you talk about the facts that is important.  It is the story you tell with them which determines how your data will be received.

I like the story of Pet Rocks for this reason.  Pet rocks were basic garden rocks with eyes stuck on them, that came in a nice box with an instruction manual about how to take care of them as a pet.

They made Gary Dahl, their inventor, a millionaire.  But, you object, they were just rocks! Why would anyone buy one?!

Gary didn’t deceive anyone into buying them by claiming they were “magic levitating rocks”.  No, they were simply rocks viewed and packaged as pets.  Enough people liked that “view” of the rocks that they paid money for it.  Maybe you or I wouldn’t, but that isn’t the point.  The point is that he conveyed an effective story that reverberated with his audience about how to view his “rocks.”

The same is true for your science.  Negative data can be just a “rock” with no meaning or value.  Or it can be presented as a “pet rock” that has meaning and value to someone.

Taking this approach, I pointed out to my graduate student after the practice that, while the result was negative,  he could use that result to tell an interesting story about why  it was negative, and what that implies biologically.  That’s what I mean by the “pet rock” approach.

My student ended up taking that advice, transforming a negative experimental result into something worth talking about.  His talk was well received, and the committee thought he did a great job.  He is now a newly minted Dr.

In other words, he transformed his talk without any dishonesty about his results.

I think people use dishonesty because they feel they are cornered and think they have no other way “out.”  But there is always another way out, it is just a matter of figuring out what that is.  Sometimes that takes a while to figure out.  It isn’t necessarily easy.  But it is always the better way in the long run.
A great grant proposal doesn’t manipulate data or deceive.   But it does takes results – bad or good – and make it clear how they fit into a valuable and interesting research story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.