We’re researchers, and researchers rely on facts and data, right? By implication, you must put lots of facts and data in your proposal to prove to your reviewer that you are “correct” in wanting funding for your project.

In years of working with clients on their proposals to varied and sundry organizations like National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, this has been one of the most difficult mindset issues to overcome with them. That’s because it’s a fallacy trying to apply it to your grant proposals.

We can illustrate this by observing any debate between two human beings. It doesn’t matter which kind of debate it is: it could be politicians arguing over ideology, or it could be between siblings arguing over who gets the chocolate cupcake versus the vanilla one.

When watching such a debate carefully, you’ll notice something: it generally doesn’t matter much or how many facts one person marshals in their favor. Often, the parties don’t agree on the facts. Even if they do, when one of the two pushes more facts on the other, it has the opposite of the intended effect: the party being overrun with facts gets more entrenched in their point of view.

We could come up with a rule for this: more facts -> more entrenchment -> less effect. What this rule says is that if someone is already stuck in a point of view, then the more we push against it – no matter how factually – the more likely they are to push back. It isn’t that facts and data don’t eventually win out – they often do in the very long-term. But in the “heat of the moment” they almost never do.

Political debates and sibling arguments have a lot more to do with your proposal than you think

Everyone on this planet has a frame of reference they operate from. That frame of reference is ultimately subjective, not objective. There are some deep theoretical reasons for this rooted in Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which I’ll spare you from going into here, but the sooner you get this, the more quickly you can progress into writing more compelling proposals.

The reason that arguments, debates, and grant writing/review are so similar is that they are all adversarial in some sense. They are all cases where one person is trying to “win” something from another. In the case of grants, the writer is trying to win a vote of support from the reviewer, over the other proposals that the reviewer also sees.

This “adversarial” relationship produces very different frames of reference in writer versus reviewer.

The writer has a frame of reference of “hey, I’m doing great work, here are the facts, and I need funding.” The reviewer has a frame of reference of “I have to wade through a bunch of long proposals to figure out which one or two I’ll support, and everyone is going to be trying to convince me to support their proposal, so I’m on the defensive.”

To be clear, most reviewers aren’t holding malicious intent towards your proposal, it’s just the context that produces this kind of defensive, on-guard response in almost everyone. And if you want more success, you have to realize this is a subjective state your reviewer holds, not an objective one.

Layered on top of these inherent subjective point-of-view differences between writer and reviewer, there are usually additional layers of difference. Often – at least in the clients I seem to attract – they are proposing something a bit outside-the-box compared to the mainstream work in the field. This creates even more of a gap between the subjective frame of reference of the reviewer versus that of the writer.

The way many less experienced writers try to fix this gap is through the insertion of more facts. They tend to write very detailed Approach Sections (the part of an NIH R01/R21/etc that describes the experiments), thinking this will more firmly convince the reviewer that they are worthy of support.

Unfortunately, just like inserting more facts into an argument rarely helps turn it in your direction with an entrenched opponent, inserting more facts into a proposal rarely if ever changes your reviewer’s frame from skeptical to excited. Facts just don’t do that.

Why is that?

The why is in the Why

At the root of everyone’s frame of reference is a series of subjective “why” statements they operate by. These are what we more commonly refer to as beliefs. Most people simply accept these beliefs as “truths about the world.” Because most of us see our own subjective frame-of-reference as “truth,” we rarely step back and ask ourselves: “are these “facts” (beliefs) I hold true, given the actual data presented in my life? Are these “facts” (beliefs) I hold true producing the results I want in my life?”

No, instead what typically occurs is that we have one or more experiences in life that cause us to form a belief about what is true, and though the original belief may be based on some facts present at the time (often perceptions from our limited point of view), we rarely go back and re-evaluate its ongoing truth.

Instead, once a belief is formed, most of us simply defend that belief to the grave.

This is what is going on with your reviewer, and likely with you as well, unless you are one of the rare few who has done lots of work to deeply examine and work your own (potentially self-limiting) beliefs.

This is why there are sayings that go something like this: in order for a field to progress, the older scientists must retire or die and let the new generation take over.

Tuning into the why

All is not lost with your grant proposals. While most of us are relatively entrenched in our beliefs, there is often the possibility of finding common ground to reduce the impact of this issue. Doing this requires a very different kind of work on the part of the writer than just pouring more facts on the flames of reviewer defensiveness.

Instead, it requires first a deep understanding of what the reviewer’s subjective frames are likely to be.

There are two layers to the subjective frames of reviewers. There is the more obvious layer of “what it is like to be a reviewer” – the time pressures, the defensiveness, and so on. Then there is the deeper layer of “what this person believes.” While it is impossible to predict this at the individual level (unless you somehow cheated and know exactly who will review your proposal), you can get close by getting to know your reviewer community, and any sub-communities that exist therein.

In other words, you must familiarize yourself with their subjective frames, as much as you can. This is very uncomfortable for many researchers, except perhaps for those in the psychological sciences. It is uncomfortable because it seems so far afield from the cultural norms of most research communities, where objectivity is held up as the only standard worth adhering to. To many of my clients, it often seems like delving deeply into subjectivity is going backwards and doing “bad science.”

Yet this is the only repeatably reliable way I’ve seen to increase the odds of getting grants funded. Once I learned to tap into this, that’s when I experienced a major turnaround in my own grant fortunes.1 I’ve seen the same for clients. While some seem more innately able to tap into this “subjective/intuitive” sense than others, I have seen many people learn how to do it who started out with no apparent ability. It does take time and patience, but what’s more, it requires overcoming those pesky beliefs that most researchers hold that say one should be “Objective at all times.” This belief ignores the reality of much of life, and especially of the grant reviewing situation.

Once you tap into this subjective sense of Why your reviewers want what they do, it empowers you to design your research and write your proposal in a way that more directly addresses their subjective frame of reference: what they are worried about, curious about, and interested in. You will use some facts in the process of addressing their subjectivity, but your facts will be carefully curated, rather than dumped onto the page willy-nilly in a vain attempt to “prove that you’re right.”

If you want to learn more about how you can get your proposal aligned with your reviewer’s subjective point of view, I’ve made an instant-on-demand training for you that covers five pillars of grant framing. I go over the approach I developed of “Frame Meshing” that shows you how to bring yours and your reviewer’s subjective frames more into alignment. You can get your spot on the training here.

  1. From six proposals in a row rejected, to the next four NIH R01’s I submitted funded without rejections or revisions

2 thoughts

  1. Dr. Giddings, I appreciate what you’re saying, but I have to respond if only to say that it is troubling when you write that we should “sell” research through using, as you write, “some facts in the process of addressing their subjectivity, but your facts will be carefully curated.” It is just starting to get out that this is part of the problem of research today – scientists carefully “curate” their facts (p-hacking, anyone? Replicability crisis?) to create a marketable product. And we all just cheer them on. Kind of makes you wonder whether anyone is a scientist anymore. Maybe we’re all marketing specialists, or public relations professionals.

    1. Hello Patrick,

      I understand your point well. However, it’s a matter of whether you wish to “argue with reality” or not.

      Cognitively, humans can’t handle large quantities of “facts” in a small amount of time or space. Our brains are miraculous in their ability to process complex, wave-based signal data into perceptions of a concrete, physical world. In doing so, there are shortcuts. One of those shortcuts is basing our processing upon certain base assumptions, or premises. Without those premises about the “structure of the world” we could not function.

      Unfortunately, those premises are often wrong. We could list 100’s of times that various scientific communities came to a consensus based on facts, only to have it overturned later, because the same facts also fit different premises.

      Facts are not nearly as reliable as most of us like to think. I would argue that therefore, being a good scientist is not about just gathering facts: it is about finding creative ways to simplify what is currently known into testable and usable hypotheses of how our world works, and then do additional experiments against that. It is also being able to then convey what one has found to other scientists and the world at large. If we don’t do that, then what’s the point? Our own curiosity? Why should the public pay us (via tax dollars) for our own curiosity if we don’t even bother to communicate what we’ve found in a way they can understand?

      So, yes, the latter part is “marketing” as you label it. For people who don’t want to do that part of the job, it is a hard road.

      This is not saying: “ignore facts” – this is saying “know when to use them, and when to not use them.” In other words, be selective about how and when you use them.

      I’m not sure who you’re referring to when you say “we all just cheer them on.” I’m not here to cheer on anyone – I’m here to help people who acknowledge the current reality and want to do their best to do great science – and to also communicate that science in a way that others can understand. Whom are the cheerleaders you’re referring to?

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