I recently tried to buy a kayak, and experienced full-bore what it’s like to deal with people who are operating from scarcity. It’s a good story for illustrating what often happens to my research clients who are trying to get grant funding, and struggling….

I live in the mountains, in a small town with a feast of vistas surrounding us. While there are many benefits, one drawback is that trying to buy a somewhat specialized thing like a whitewater kayak can pose it’s own challenges. The nearest big city is 2.5 hours away, which would mean a five hour drive to go shopping there.

I don’t mind the drive now and then – it follows one of the local classic whitewater runs, so I get to scout out how I might run it.

But I’ve been super busy, so I wanted to find something more convenient this time. First, I called a dealer who’s much closer by. This dealer sells the same brand of kayaks. They’re really small, so I didn’t expect them to stock it, but I thought they might be able to order it.

At first they said they could order it if I paid shipping. I wanted to see what my options were, so I called the dealer in the city. They didn’t have the one I wanted in stock – a really nice blue and purple color – so they said they’d need for me to pay shipping – plus the five hour drive to pick it up.

No thanks.

I asked them if they’d waive the shipping fee on this $1200 item if I picked it up, and they wouldn’t budge. So I told them I’d be getting it locally at the smaller dealer.

The next day, the local dealer called me back and said he couldn’t even order me one. He said that the big city dealer was very protective of their territory, and that it technically included this area. They could only sell a limited range of boats, and would get in trouble ordering one for me.
What had changed? I suspect that “Big City Dealer” got upset about me saying I would buy it elsewhere, and called up “small town dealer”. I can’t be sure.

What I do know, is that Big City Dealer is trying to waste my time and money, forcing me to buy from them, by limiting my choices about whom I want to do business with.
My response? I found a place to order it online. It was in stock and ready to ship. Though I still had to pay for shipping, it came straight to my door – no five hour drive involved.

Now, I like to support local business. Having owned a bike shop, I feel there’s value in having that human connection rather than just generic Internet or catalog based orders.
But this local business was actively making my life difficult. They wanted to restrict where I could buy it, and force me to pay shipping and drive all the way there.

They were doing this from a perspective of “scarcity” – i.e. that the local small town dealer would “take a sale” from them, and that there weren’t enough sales to go around. Yet they pissed me off, so they didn’t get that sale, nor will they get as many other sales from me in the future. I don’t support dealers who actively impinge on my free choice. So their scarcity thinking will actually lead to more scarcity in the end, not less.

That is always how it works, everywhere, every time.

That’s why this has a relation to grant writing. I see many people in a mode of scarcity thinking that comes from the “old ways” of doing things – and it really slows them down.

Times have changed, are you changing with them?

The world has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Much of that has to do with the internet. It used to be that one of the most handy tools for people in power to stay in power was controlling the flow of information. However – at least in free countries where the internet is not limited, there is no such control anymore. The people in power can’t use the tool of controlling information to prevent anyone else from gaining knowledge about what is available or possible.

If it were 20 years ago, bypassing the Big City Dealer to buy a kayak would have been very difficult. Nowadays, it’s commonplace. I found at least three options online for buying the exact boat I wanted and having it in my hands within just a few days.

The same changes apply to science, but have you kept up?

These changes apply to science just as much as they do buying a kayak. In my father’s day as a scientist, those who had the big labs and were perceived as the authorities had a lot of control over what happened. They had control over what papers got published, what grants got funded, and so on.

As a result, a culture developed – based on a sort of “old boys club” – where several practices became common:

  1. Scientific recognition was largely about “who made the discovery first” – i.e. who got the publication out first. This created a sort of race where speed mattered more than quality.
  2. Being secretive about your discoveries was paramount. If you had something new, you had to guard it and make sure that your competition didn’t get it.
  3. Protecting turf was common. There are whole multi-generational lineages of scientists who work in a certain area. If you weren’t from one of these labs, then trying to break into the field could engender a lot of resistance.

I used the past tense in the above, yet many of these approaches persist to this day. I run into clients all the time who are operating as if these were “the norm.” While they were “the norm” in a bygone era, things change. The world is changing, funders are changing, and expectations are changing. There are plenty of signs that this old way of doing things is slowly on its way out. Yet many still cling to it, like a life-raft that is hissing as it slowly loses air and will eventually sink.

The reason it’s changing is pretty clear: on the whole, our culture expects openness. For better or worse, we live in the era of 24/7 reality TV, where people bare themselves to millions of viewers. We live in an era where a single Google search on a simple term can yield more search results than one could consume in a lifetime of reading.
Societal expectations have changed. If you’re someone who closely guards your secrets, thirty years ago you’d be seen as relatively normal. Nowadays, you’re seen with suspicion: what have you got to hide?

Perceptions are everything when it comes to grant funding

Let’s say you’re a reviewer, who has a difficult choice to make. You’ve winnowed through 14 different proposals, and come down to two that you’re most interested in. These two are both doing great science, and they’ve told a great story about where that’s going and why it needs funding. Unfortunately, you know that probably only one can get funded, so you have to choose which one to advocate for.

One of the proposals is by a senior team who is doing great science. However, they are a bit cagey in the proposal about exactly what they’re doing or where it will lead. You can tell that they may have something great, but the details are very vague.

The other proposal also comes from a solid team, though not so senior. They are very open about what they’re doing and where it may lead. They clearly show a path via which they’ll share their future discoveries with the community. You even think that your own research may ultimately benefit from the work they do.

Which will you support?

If it were thirty years ago, a lot of people were enamored with the perception of authority – enough so that they’d support the more senior team, despite any perceived drawbacks.

However, in these times, the sheen of authority and secrecy is not necessarily a positive thing. This is one reason I know of at least one Nobel Laureate who has had trouble getting grants funded.

More and more reviewers are leaning towards openness and giving back to the community when they pick which grants to support.

In fact, the big funders like National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation also have changed. They have recently instituted new accountability rules, and want to make sure that the science being done will be done right and benefit the community. They have sent the clear message that they’re no longer interested in supporting investigators’ pet projects “just because.”

What can you do as a grant writer

Contrast protecting “the one good idea” versus “moving quickly, being nimble.” There is no shortage of good ideas – yet many people get stuck in protecting their “one good idea” and guarding it with their life. They may take years to implement it, and they may struggle getting funding – because they’re being so secretive.

Other people realize that there is no shortage of ideas, and that the key is rapid execution. They are more open, and garner more support, which allows them to get the funding to move more quickly. They understand that “good ideas” are a dime a dozen but that “good execution” (speed, quality, and impact) is uncommon. They work on the part that’s really important, rather than focusing on the perceived scarcity of good ideas.

While the old guard still gets plenty of funding, over the years I have seen more and more of that kind of “old guard” thinking ruin careers. Funding slowly dries up, and like a frog being slowly boiled, they don’t realize anything is wrong until it’s too late.

Meanwhile, I’ve seen the new guard thrive more and more through openness, impact, and speed. When I started in the 1990’s, grants mostly flowed to those operating in the old-guard way. These days, anecdotally it seems much closer to 50/50, with the balance continuing to tilt towards openness.

Openness gets more funding

I have seen openness help get people funding more often than being closed and worried about people “stealing” one’s ideas.

This is how it relates to scarcity: the closed approach comes from a scarcity thinking. It says that “ideas are scarce, so I must protect mine at all costs.”

However, in the end, it usually backfires. When one puts the guard up and acts very closed, it is a turn off to funders and funding in these times.

That means less funding, which means more scarcity.

Scarcity breeds scarcity.

Blogging as case in point

I’ve tried both approaches in my business of helping people. In the early days, I’d be very careful to save my “best ideas” only for my paid classes, and share the “not so good” ones in public venues like the blog. It worked ok, but I didn’t thrive.

Then I made a shift to more openness, sharing some of my “best stuff” openly via the blog and especially in free webinars I do. This led to far more success in getting clients. Prospective clients got to “sample” my work fully before taking the plunge to enrolling for a course, and this built far more trust than just putting up a big pay-wall and expecting people to trust.

I had to overcome my own scarcity thinking. I’d worry that I was “giving too much away” and that some people would only ever do the “free stuff” and never participate in a course.1

Yet in the end, the proof is in the numbers. The extent to which I’ve been open is the extent to which my business of helping people has thrived. I happily share my “best ideas” on webinars, though of course I can’t go in as much depth as we do in a course.

Sharing leads to others trusting you more, and trust is vital for grants

If you come off as closed and guarded, you will not garner as much trust. This puts the barrier for funding higher.

If you want to have a higher likelihood of getting funding, dropping a scarcity attitude, and implementing more of an open, sharing approach in your writing (and career) will always feed back in positive ways.

Even if you do get “scooped” on an idea, if you realize that there’s a plethora of “good ideas,” it won’t bother you. You’ll instead realize that implementation and quality are far more important, and focus on those.

No more scarcity

Dropping the scarcity mentality – and instead embracing an approach of sharing – has many benefits. It not only benefits your relationship with others – collaborators, program officers, etc – but it also feels much better. Scarcity mode is not a good mode to be in, always feeling guarded and worried. I know, because I’ve been there and done that. It did not help me, my career, or my psyche.

Here’s to your success!

  1. In the end, students who do take a course almost always seem to get better results. It’s because by investing in themselves, they are far more committed to success than those who don’t make that commitment.

    1 Response to "How You’re Destroying Your Grants with “Scarcity” Thinking"

    • Kean

      Thank you! This beautifully summarized what I have been questioning about my current institution. I am a PI at a relatively-known old boys club “non-profit” institution on soft money. It functions exactly as you described above. Within this old boys club institution, there are micro old boys clubs that do only what benefits themselves and use others outside the clubs as if it is their right. When they write grants, their discussions focus on how to justify all sorts of extra costs so that they can get as much money even if they know that they are not going to use the funds that way. They trash ideas that will benefit other researchers and improve quality of research because such ideas have little immediate financial payback even if these ideas attracted lots of attention at conferences/meetings. Wherever before this place, I was generous to share my skills, ideas, and knowledge, but this place really changed me — I have been guarding my space, my ideas, my resources, etc. I need a change. In fact, soon, I am moving to a place where I can be myself and feel good about myself. It is encouraging to know the funding trend is changing. Even after these hard years, I still love writing grants and doing research and want to continue doing that. I needed a confirmation that I am on the right wave and know that in the end, I will not lose much but gain a lot more precious things in life!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

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