It is with a sense of relief (but with strings attached) that I write to you this chilly February morning. I’m relieved that our government—you know, the one that funds much of the research that goes on here in the US—is on a somewhat saner track after the crazy recent events at the Capitol. We’re getting a whole new cabinet with the new President, one that is presumably more science-friendly.

Yet I am also wary. I remember colleagues of mine celebrating raucously in 2008 after a “regime change” here in the States, and while it was quantitatively better for research after that change, many of the longstanding problems didn’t suddenly go away. Some of them got worse.

One of those problems has been growing for many years, regardless of the dominant politics here or elsewhere. It’s what I’ve named (only semi-jokingly) grant spam. Grant spam is like email spam; it is an unwanted flooding of the system with repeated attempts to get funding by stacking the odds with quantity rather than quality.

The endemic game

It is endemic to the academic culture in many places, this notion that the only way to “play the grant game/lottery” is to submit as many applications as possible. I’ve seen this view pushed repeatedly and forcefully by department chairs, deans, and other even more senior leadership in research.

I’ve heard from countless clients who are “scored” in terms of progress by how many applications they submit, as if it were some kind of proxy for actual progress. I’ve spoken to many who are threatened with various consequences for not submitting at least something for every major deadline (the NIH R01 deadline here in the US is the most common one).

The lottery-ticket “progress” system

Can you imagine a world where your supervisor rates your progress on how often you go out and buy lottery tickets for the business? It sounds like a horrible business plan—because it is. I could write a whole tome on all the problems that would create. Yet this is exactly what research institutions are promoting among their faculty.

This is schizophrenic thinking. On one hand, those pushing the constant grant spamming would claim “it’s more than a lottery, quality counts” as a way to differentiate themselves from lottery ticket buyers. Yet that rationale doesn’t work, because as soon as you bring “quality” into the equation of whether a proposal is likely to be funded, it removes the very thing that would make it a lottery, which is blind randomness. It can’t be both at the same time, that’s mathematically impossible. If quality skews the probability in any substantive manner, then it will always pay to optimize towards higher quality.

My first stint on the NIH BDMA study section highlighted this. From the moment I opened the first PDF to review, I could see clear differences between submitted proposals. Some were readable, interesting, and (apparently) doing great science, and some were dense and confusing and did little to show that the research had merit.

After getting four R01’s of my own in a row without rejection or revision, as well as several other major grants (including an RC2 and a U24), and then going on to help many in the research community to get NIH, NSF, DOD, and other funding, I have zero doubt that quality matters. It biases the odds in your favor. The most effective approach is the opposite of grant spamming, and it means giving ourselves the time and space to produce something of quality.

With one exception

To explain, let’s do some quick (qualitative) math. Those who have us believe that getting funding is a lottery would describe it thus:

P (funding) = F (funding rate)

In other words, the probability of funding is dependent only on the funding rate—the ratio of funded to submitted proposals—and nothing else.

Now, if you believe my arguments above, we must include a quality term in our equation:

P (funding) = F (funding rate, quality)

This is saying that the probability of funding is dependent on both the background funding rate and the quality.

If it were just that, we would at least have an equitable system, where each person can influence the odds by the quality they put in.

However, in the real world, there’s a third term we must add:

P (funding) = F (funding rate, quality, perceived reputation)

The term “perceived reputation” is added, as opposed to just “reputation,” to denote that this is an entirely subjective measurement made by reviewers and funders of your “reputation” or your “gravitas.”

While I have long argued that higher quality leads to higher perceived reputation, there’s an underside to this. Let’s say someone has fallen for (or been forced into) the ruse of grant spamming as a way to get more funding.

Then in our equation, the quality term becomes much less important, which we can illustrate by dropping it out of the equation:

P (funding) = F (funding rate, perceived reputation)

If we look at this equation, and think about the biases built into our system, it may produce a moment of shock.

That is, when someone “plays the lottery” they are not actually playing an unbiased lottery, they are playing a lottery whose only bias is perceived reputation.

Guess whom that is going to benefit the most?

Its benefit will be strongly biased towards more senior people of a certain gender and skin color, especially those at more prominent institutions.

So, we can conclude one thing from this: if you play the funding game as a “grant lottery” and you are in a group that is traditionally marginalized in the sciences, you will face more difficult odds in that lottery. You will submit more proposals than other contenders per each one funded.

The long and the short of it is that the grant spam mentality promoted by so much of academic leadership further solidifies the existing biases in the system.

Because if your probability of a win is based only on randomness plus your perceived reputation and you have the advantage of gender, race, and institution going for you—you may be able to play the grant spam game and have the odds be enough in your favor to get by (even if just barely).

But if you don’t have those factors in your favor, and you find yourself repeatedly submitting at the behest of leadership that essentially forces you to do so (regardless of quality), it is easy to further tarnish your perceived reputation.

Just think about the reputation of email spammers for a moment. The low regard in which they’re universally held should be a cautionary tale for grant spammers.

While most study sections and review panels will be forgiving of a few submissions that miss the mark of funding, after seeing repeated failed attempts from a person, there will be a further bias built against future attempts with that person’s name. This just cements the perceived reputation bias.

I’ve seen people go down that path, and it is not pretty. It is a downward spiral that never ends well.

On the flip side, when someone who starts out with a higher perceived reputation gets lucky with the grant spam lottery (even if that’s just because they started with the odds in their favor), that only reinforces the idea that grant spamming is a winning strategy. What’s more, the fact of receiving funding reinforces that person’s perceived reputation, biasing the odds further in their favor.

So this idea perpetuated by leadership in many institutions that one must regularly play the lottery serves to amplify biases against those already affected by such biases.

What is the solution?

There are solutions at two different levels:

1) systemic change, and

2) personal change.

While in the long term we can hope for leadership waking up to the ways in which relentless grant spamming perpetuates existing biases, systemic change is slow, and it can be fickle depending on the political winds of the moment. So, such a fix could be a long time coming, and may not be implemented equally by different institutions and funders. This is not to dismiss the importance of systemic change in the long term. It is very important, but for anyone affected now by this issue, waiting on systemic change is not an effective strategy.

That leads us to the second solution, which is personal change. We operate within a system that wields pressure in several ways. The most obvious one is the carrot and stick. In the case of grant spam, the carrot is the promise of advancement by following edicts like “the number of grant submissions will be counted towards your promotion consideration, even if they don’t yield funding.”

The ironic truth of such a carrot is that it is an incentive which weakens the very careers of those it is trying to shepherd through. Someone who has submitted a dozen or more failed proposals leading up to tenure or a promotion does not enter that position with strength and standing.

Instead, they enter it feeling the weight of personal failure and, worse, the stigma of many of their colleagues seeing them as not-particularly-successful. Their personal “brand” is permanently tarnished by the many repeated failed attempts. This is not to imply that failures are per se a bad thing; however, the rejections received from repeated grant spamming are not failures one is likely to learn much from, since the expectation is one of repeated rejection.

Take, for example, someone who submits 30 failed proposals in less than a two year span, before getting one funded. Can we say this person “won” the game and is now living in the promised Shangri-La of funding? It’s highly doubtful; not only will they be permanently associated, in certain circles, with the many low-quality proposals they churned out,  but worse yet, they have spent two years developing some decidedly bad habits.

For it’s a bad habit and a waste of potential to spend all available time submitting low-quality work that clogs the system, rather than spending that precious time shepherding a viable research program. Building a research program, nurturing a team, and leveraging all of that into meaningful recognition in one’s field is far from a trivial task. It is highly improbable that someone submitting two grant proposals per month, along with other academic duties, hasany time left for building a sustainable endeavor.

For someone who misspends their time and resources this way, the occasional “win” that might occur with constant grant spamming amounts to little more than false hope and reinforcement of a bad habit. “Look, my spamming worked! I’m going to keep doing it!” 

Grant spamming is a fantasy, and we’ve all had a powerful reality check recently on the danger of living in a system based on a fantasy. Remember a certain failed political leader who kept insisting he won by a landslide? (I know, I know, how could you forget…)

Repeated steeping in the broth of that repugnant fantasy is what finally brought that leader down. If it can bring down a person whose position seemed almost unassailable, living in fantasyland can and will eventually bring down the careers of those who are less adept at political machinations, and who don’t have built-in wealth, skin color, and gender all working in their favor.

Unfortunately, the same biases still exist in research careers, along with almost everywhere else. Odds are that someone of the “wrong” gender or color or orientation will be given far less leeway. So in a scenario where excessive grant spamming tarnishes a reputation, the tarnish often runs deeper and is more difficult to remove for anyone who’s not in the protected group.

This puts researchers who are already marginalized in danger of becoming more so, through the very act of doing what they’re told to do by advisers, mentors, and supervisors, no matter how well-meaning they might be.

My point here is not to encourage a sense of victimization in those who, like yours truly, are part of a group that is sometimes marginalized. Wallowing in self-pity and victimhood—even if supported by the facts—only makes matters worse. It depresses and disempowers, robbing us of the ability to act with focus and creativity to solve the problems at hand.

So if the answer isn’t in throwing a self-pity party, what is it?

The first answer is to face the truth

Unlike recent examples of behavior from our political leaders, our strongest option is to acknowledge the truth: that getting research grants funded is often a difficult, uphill march, fraught with potential dangers and traps. Just as if you were setting off on a mountaineering expedition to Mt. Everest, understanding the truth of what you will face is the most effective way of preparing and making it to the summit.

Imagine if your job were to climb Mt. Everest, and you had constant pressure from your leadership to just “get going”—to get out there and climb, heedless of the obstacles, until you either get injured or killed, or by rare happenstance, reach the summit (only to be pressured to start climbing again next month).

You would have a choice: do you follow along with this insanity, giving into the pressure just to appease an anxious Chair who wants to “see you climbing right now?” Or do you value your own health and life enough that you refuse to climb until you’ve made the appropriate preparations and developed the skills you need to give yourself a proper chance at success?

While the stakes may be a bit lower for someone in a research career—usually loss of life or health is not a direct result of failure—a career is often on the line

Ultimately, as with questions determining our health and life, we have to decide: what are we willing to tolerate, to sacrifice, in the name of a tradeoff between pleasing others in the short term versus our long-term career viability?

This is not a choice that can be outsourced or ignored. By ignoring it and pretending it doesn’t exist as a choice, many people make the default choice that their long-term career does not matter as much as pleasing others in the short term. Failing to make a choice at a critical juncture is itself a choice, and one that can have dire consequences for a researcher: further marginalization, lack of peer respect, stalling of research, and failure to advance.

Making the proactive choice not to participate in a culture of grant spamming is the more difficult path in the short-term, yet in the end it yields far more fruit, and better fruit too. When faced with my own choice about whether to keep on going with a string of six major rejections in the first eighteen months of my faculty job, or face an utter trouncing of the ego through repeated redlining of my proposal drafts by a challenging mentor, the grant-spamming status quo had some appeal. In the end, I decided to take the nasty medicine: to get that deep, biting feedback repeatedly until I iterated my proposal into something of true quality, a decision I’ve never regretted.

Honestly, if I had been under the kind of pressure to “just submit” that many researchers face today, I can’t say I’d have maintained poise and held off submitting until my proposals were truly ready. As it was, even with the more enlightened leadership of my department chair at the time, who made it clear that funding results were far more important than submission quantity, it was still a tremendous challenge, on several occasions, to hold off on an “almost ready but not quite there” submission. I felt both a massive internal pressure to succeed, and also an external pressure of supporting a large and growing team. However, these were the decisions that led to getting first-round funding. Each one of my submissions was made with a sense of quality and pride. Apparently, the reviewers agreed.

Ultimately, It’s Up To Us

So, if we want more equality in the system, it starts with ourselves and the choices we make. Will we bow to the temptation to go with the flow of bad habits, dominant culture, and not-so-subtle pressures to submit not-yet-ready, half-baked, often last-minute proposals? Or do we hold a fast line of care for our own long-term careers, as well as the health of the entire research enterprise, by choosing to submit only quality proposals that have been given sufficient care and thought so as to engender respect, even when not ultimately chosen for funding?

That choice is the one thing that all of us have the power to make, regardless of circumstances and pressures. It is the choice that will yield a positive bias in outcomes regardless of whether we’re part of the white male group or not. While it won’t directly change the baked-in systemic biases, it will help bring more equality in a bottom-up fashion, if enough of us embrace it. It will move us incrementally towards the ideal of a research meritocracy, where the quality of our work means more than our gender or skin color.

Is it worth the pain and challenge of holding off the temptation to yield to the chant of submit, submit, submit, submit! only to invest months to years of time working on the quality of our submissions for a very delayed gratification?

It’s not a choice to be taken lightly, yet it’s also not a choice that anyone who really cares about their career should make by default, without deep, conscious consideration.

It is perhaps one of the most important, yet least appreciated, choices that each researcher makes about the direction of their career.

Ready for quality?

If, upon considering the arguments I’ve made here, you want a unique, intensive online bootcamp-like environment for developing your grant writing skills in the context of working on a live proposal, you may be interested in the Grant Foundry.

We are now accepting applications for our spring session. Recent sessions have filled to capacity quickly, so if you want to find out more, have a look at the video here, and submit your application for consideration.

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