Grants suck. That’s funny, coming from someone who has been helping people with them for the past four years. However, working with so many people on them, I’ve seen the dark sides. There are several.

The grant game breeds fear. Lots of it. Fear breeds conservatism and unhealthy competitiveness. Fear is the enemy of creative thinking, and it is the enemy of fun, freedom, and clarity.

The conservatism that comes from fear leads most reviewers to be extremely conservative about what they’ll support. This holds back progress, because nobody – and I mean nobody – can accurately predict who will discover the next big breakthrough or how they will discover it.

If you look at a history of scientific and technical progress, most BIG breakthroughs came from:

  1. An unlikely source (i.e. an underdog), rather than a big name lab
  2. An unlikely direction, rather than where everyone was already looking for a solution

Just about zero

In my experience, the number of times reviewers have actually supported an underdog doing work that comes from an unlikely direction is… just about zero.

So what everyone ends up doing is playing a shell game. They get funding for the conservative, fundable work, then use some portion of the funding to do the work they actually THINK they should do. If they’re really lucky, the “side work” leads to a breakthrough that can become the next grant, after it’s no longer considered fringe.

Yet our illustrious funding agencies are now clamping down on that. In the name of accountability, they are issuing more and more grants as rigorously monitored contracts, where the recipient is constantly reporting in along every single step of the way.

How many solutions for big things like cancer will come from that closely monitored, conservative work? Probably close to zero.

Creativity and innovation can’t be “forced” into submission by deadlines, committees, and tight monitoring.

Even if you don’t write grants, it sucks

Let’s say you’re in business and want your tax dollars spent wisely. You may think that it’s a good thing that the government has kept tightening the screws of funding.

It is true that grant recipients are held more accountable than ever. So much so that they spend all their time accounting and scrambling for grant funds – rather than actually doing the deep, CREATIVE science that might, say, get us a cure for cancer. So what you get for your money and accountability is lots of little, incremental stuff that on the surface appears to be progress, but isn’t going to any worthwhile destination. It’s a bit like wandering around in the desert. You may be moving as you put one foot in front of the other, but you’re not really going anywhere. That’s what’s happened to science.

We’ve let the accountants take over, and while they may be good at accounting, they’re not good at science.

Good news, bad news

Grants aren’t all bad. The actual act of writing a grant proposal is often an exercise in clarifying your thinking. Clarity is a good thing. Some form of accountability is a good thing. There’s a fine balance here – and that balance did seem to work reasonably well for many years. It worked until fear infected the system.

The bad news is this: now that fear is firmly established in the halls of funders like the NIH and NSF, it’s paralyzing progress. I don’t have high hopes for scientific progress – until we get rid of that unnecessary fear.

Getting rid of fear

Fear is a creativity killer. Fear shuts down clarity. Fear causes us to act ineffectively.

Set an example for your colleagues. Ditch the fear. Find ways to act from emotions of joy, love, and fun, instead. The only way we can change the system is to do it one person at a time – starting with ourselves.

How to get rid of fear

As someone who’s experienced a mammoth-sized slice of the fear pie in the past, I’ve learned a few things about dealing with it. Here are some strategies:

1. Get back to the NOW. Fear comes from living in some version of the future that you think is “real” but is not. It is just a fantasy, and a bad one. If you look around you in the present moment, it’s quite likely things are just fine, here and now. Focus on that. Here and now is where your only true power to affect things lies.

2. FULLY appreciate what you have. I’d heard lots of people express the importance of gratitude over the years, and I never really got it, until making this important connection: when you’re in gratitude or appreciation, you’re unable to simultaneously feel fear. Try it! These are fear-antidotes, and by practicing them, you can function with more creativity and clarity.

3. Get some help. No, I’m not referring to going to a shrink (unless you need it). If you are trying to accomplish something big and complex, and are lacking clarity on HOW to achieve that something big and complex, then this breeds fear and worry. Lots of it. I massively reduced my worrying about grants after working with a mentor who helped me understand how to write them effectively. Once I knew what I was doing and had clarity, then it was just a matter of doing it. It had the bonus of actually getting me more funding, too.

Don’t let the culture of fear that pervades our culture infect your brain.


BTW – if you’re looking for help ditching the fear around grants, I have spaces for a few more people at an upcoming, intensive grant workshop. This is the last grant writing event I’m doing for quite some time, so go ahead and reach out to me if you’re interested.

    3 replies to "Grants suck – ditching the fear"

    • Diptiman Chanda

      Last October I submitted a R21 to NHLBI entitled, “Curing Childhood Obesity by in utero stem cell transplantation”. Although the reviewers agree the idea is very creative and innovative, they don’t see immediate application in clinical practice. They did not score the grant and render it ND. I submitted this proposal last year for a creative research idea contest in obesity related research which I won (5000 USD). I was hopeful I would get a fundable score. Other comments include “I have not received grants before”. You’re right! I may have to write more “down to earth” proposals in the future. I am currently a Research Associate at UAB trying to be independent.

    • Sven

      Thank you for your advice, Morgan! Your article is a breath of fresh air, and not just for the grant writer under mental duress.

      • Site Admin

        I’m glad that it helped!

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