There are two distinct mindsets among many scientists about grant writing. One approach is to write many grants, to “play the odds”. Necessarily, when quantity goes up, quality goes down. Another approach is to write less grants but of higher quality. These take more time, but may have better odds of getting funded. Which way do you think Morgan advocates for? Find out in today’s episode of The Not So Boring Scientist. Leave a note in the comments if you disagree!

2 thoughts

  1. Hi Morgan, I once believed as you do that you should only write a small number of high quality proposals. I have been pretty successful over the years, and my last renewal was funded in the first round. However, I am now shifting to writing more proposals. The reason for the shift is that it takes quality reviewers to appreciate a quality grant. With paylines so low, if one reviewer does not understand your science you don’t get paid. If you write a plethora of grants you increase the chance you will get an appreciative set of reviewers. Much of my thinking along these lines is fueled the shorter NIH grant application. I am being proactive in thinking that more reviewers will have a hard time determining if the approach is valid, since the space to describe the approach is less.

    1. Hi Jeff,
      Thanks for writing. I agree with you on one point, in that the more times that one applies, the better the odds – as long as the quality is equal.

      That said, there are several responses I’d like to raise:

      1) I don’t believe it is possible to maintain the quality when you’re going for volume, even with the shorter format. In my own proposals – and those of the other (few) people I know who usually get funded on the first round – just the development of the aims takes a few months (much of which is thinking time and awaiting feedback). The most time consuming part of my proposals was never the Research Design (or Approach) – it was laying the foundation in the aims and Background & Significance.

      2) I don’t think that less detail makes the reviewer’s decisions any more random, in fact I believe it is the opposite. The core of a great grant proposal is not in the specifics of the methodology, it is in the inspiration and excitement of the reviewer. Facts and experimental details are not inspiring and exciting. I believe the reason that the NIH got rid of the ability to put all the detail in is that they realized that reviewers spent too much time lost in the details, and they would forget the big picture – like “is the work important?” The new format – and new scoring system – strongly encourages more focus on answering that question. This can only be a good thing, excepting for those whose work doesn’t appropriately address the “is it important?” question. On this point, I have a new series of longer videos that are coming soon to explain this in more detail (and I go into it in depth in my online grant writing course).

      3) You mention that it takes quality reviewers to appreciate a quality grant. That’s kind of an interesting “us vs them” approach – I don’t know about you, but I’ve been on many review panels and study sections, and in my case, “us” is “them”! And, like many others I know, when it comes time to review a stack of 10-15 grants, while I’d like to do a great job, reality intrudes. There are many other demands on my time (as with any reviewer). If I have to “dig deep” to figure out where the “quality” lies in a proposal, sorry, I’m not going to give it a good score. The proposals that nearly always do well are those where the quality is obvious from the first sentence. It takes time to develop a proposal like that (or, getting lucky – but I don’t like relying on luck).

      4) It was never about “whether the approach is valid”. When you (and I) get awful reviews back, they almost always pick on the approach. But that is often not the actual reason that they picked on you. They picked on you because they had a negative reaction from the start (usually within the specific aims – i.e., they didn’t buy the premise of the grant). For more information on how humans decide, check out a book like “How We Decide” – it is clear that humans aren’t the rational deciders that many think they are. Often decisions are made subconsciously, then rationalized after-the-fact.

      5) If you submit more proposals, someone has to review more proposals. If everyone takes that approach, what happens to the system? The outcome is not pretty.

      While I understand the idea of beating the odds by playing more often, I think that these downsides weigh against such an approach.

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