The Grant-Writing Moment

When a scientist applies for a grant to fund their research, there’s a way it’s supposed to go. The scientist starts out with a clear idea, a detailed plan for an experiment or calculation they’d like to do, and an expectation of what they could learn from it. Then they get the grant, do their experiment or calculation, and make their discovery. The world smiles upon them.

There’s also a famous way it actually goes. Like the other way, the scientist has a clear idea and detailed plan. Then they do their experiment, or calculation, and see what they get, making their discovery. Finally, they write their grant application, proposing to do the experiment they already did. Getting the grant, they then spend the money on their next idea instead, which they will propose only in the next grant application, and so on.

This is pretty shady behavior. But there’s yet another way things can go, one that flips the previous method on its head. And after considering it, you might find the shady method more understandable.

What happens if a scientist is going to run out of funding, but doesn’t yet have a clear idea? Maybe they don’t know enough yet to have a detailed plan for their experiment or their calculation. Maybe they have an idea, but they’re still foggy about what they can learn from it.

Well, they’re still running out of funding. They still have to write that grant. So they start writing. Along the way, they’ll manage to find some of that clarity: they’ll have to write a detailed plan, they’ll have to describe some expected discovery. If all goes well, they tell a plausible story, and they get that funding.

When they actually go do that research, though, there’s no guarantee it sticks to the plan. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed not to: neither the scientist nor the grant committee typically knows what experiment or calculation needs to be done: that’s what makes the proposal novel science in the first place. The result is that once again, the grant proposal wasn’t exactly honest: it didn’t really describe what was actually going to be done.

You can think of these different stories as falling on a sliding scale. On the one end, the scientist may just have the first glimmer of an idea, and their funded research won’t look anything like their application. On the other, the scientist has already done the research, and the funded research again looks nothing like the application. In between there’s a sweet spot, the intended system: late enough that the scientist has a good idea of what they need to do, early enough that they haven’t done it yet.

How big that sweet spot is depends on the pace of the field. If you’re a field with big, complicated experiments, like randomized controlled trials, you can mostly make this work. Your work takes a long time to plan, and requires sticking to that plan, so you can, at least sometimes, do grants “the right way”. The smaller your experiments are though, the more the details can change, and the smaller the window gets. For a field like theoretical physics, if you know exactly what calculation to do, or what proof to write, with no worries or uncertainty…well, you’ve basically done the calculation already. The sweet spot for ethical grant-writing shrinks down to almost a single moment.

In practice, some grant committees understand this. There are grants where you are expected to present preliminary evidence from work you’ve already started, and to discuss the risks your vaguer ideas might face. Grants of this kind recognize that science is a process, and that catching people at that perfect moment is next-to-impossible. They try to assess what the scientist is doing as a whole, not just a single idea.

Scientists ought to be honest about what they’re doing. But grant agencies need to be honest too, about how science in a given field actually works. Hopefully, one enables the other, and we reach a more honest world.

2 thoughts on “The Grant-Writing Moment

  1. Andrew Oh-Willeke

    A great post that really captures the tricky ambiguities of a process that few people in the field receive formal training to understand or do.

    A couple of extremes in this regard are the MacArthur Fellowship, which awards you a big grant with no strings attached because you are just that awesome and sure to use the funds for something worthwhile (endowed professorships and institutes work in a somewhat similar way with slightly more strings), at once extreme, and the Nobel Prize (and other prize based awards) which gives you a big pot of money after you finished everything and got an amazing result even though it is no incentive at that point to do the work and the odds of ever getting one are so small that the prospect of earning it isn’t much of an incentive either, at the other.

    Also, while administrators get a bad rap in academia, they can be very helpful in this regard. My mother spent a career helping academics locate and write grants as a college administrator and we went to conferences every year on the latest in getting grants in addition to living it every day for years in dinner table chats.

    One thing administrators can do is help you to articulate an idea that is clear to you in a way that will also be clear to the grant committee and that emphasizes what you are clear on, rather than what you don’t know which scientists tend to be focused upon in their own daily work (for good reason). Researchers writing grant proposals are also prone to “nerd view” and often assume that someone else will understand the significance of their work (e.g. hexagon functions or a new way of evaluating polylogorithms) or what key substeps are necessary to get there, rather than adding the extra sentence or three that connects the dots more explicitly. Similarly, scientists often tend to leave out the punchline that adds urgency and a present need to do the work to the pitchy, or recapitulates is broader significance in the big scheme of things rather than just its immediate and local significance.

    Also, scientists who aren’t native English language speakers also make some understandable goofs in technical grammar and usage in these key documents, although rarely spelling errors FWIW, that makes them look less polished and insightful than they really are, undermining their potential.

    The other thing that administrators can do is to help you locate the grant committees that will be most inclined to fund the kind of projects you are suited and able to pursue, essentially a matchmaking function. Senior researchers and scientists have been through the drill enough times to figure this out for the most part, but it can be a great help to early career and mid-career folks, particularly because the quality of departmental level leadership and mentorship on the administrative and grant making side in any institution is very patchy. Some senior folks who should be helping you rose to their positions because they were good at it and are excellent mentors in this process, but lots of very skilled scientists are horrible at paperwork and administrative organization, lose track of deadlines, have a poor awareness of the funding universe and the process, and aren’t good at explaining themselves to grant committees. They rise because they have at times had other people to help them along or because the substance of their ideas is good enough to slog through and survive the process despite suboptimal methods of doing so.

    Ideally, the communications with grant writing administrator experts starts early so scientists can learn what steps they can take to build a trajectory of scholarship that looks good to a grant committee – for example – in giving credit to past funders in papers and in separate thank you notes (grant committee members often are paid little or nothing for this work and really and truly appreciate every smidgen of thanks that they get) and in putting key buzzwords that will be important for future work and concepts in published (or pre-printed) conference papers.

    For example, putting a proposal for “the next step” in the final conclusory paragraphs of conference papers and journal articles as a matter of course can really help grease the wheels for you next project, as opposed to the instinct that many scientists have out of a sense of orderliness and neat categorization of ideas, to leaving it out since it isn’t strictly germane to the narrow subpart of the issue addressed in the current paper. It is much more persuasive to say that the next step you need to take is X in the conclusion of a substantive publication or conference paper (better yet, several of them), than it is to say so for the first time in the grant proposal you send off a month or two later.

    Advanced grantsmanship involves tricks like figuring out who is on the key grant committees you are targeting before you go to conferences and then planting seeds about how your next step is where the field needs to go in premeditated questions and comments about (and in pre-COVID times, lunchtime or break chats) your issue in the presence of (not necessarily directed to) the grand decision maker. Pitching a grant is like advertising. The more times someone hears about an idea, the more likely it is that they will become receptive to it.

    Yeah, you didn’t go into theoretical physics to play politics. But willing to put aside that occupational pride to master the grant writing process keeps you and your assistants and collaborators in the business of doing real physics.


    1. 4gravitons Post author

      I’ve met quite a few helpful grant admins in the past. In general I don’t think they’re the type of admins that get a bad rap in academia: like department secretaries and budget folks, they’re pretty clearly there to help, as opposed to the usual caricatures of vice-provosts in charge of provostery. Roughly, one can divide admins into three types: those you can ask to do things, those who ask you to do things, and those you never interact with at all. Rather naturally, academics prefer the first group!

      Also in my experience scientists love to write about “the next step” in the conclusions of papers: it’s a way to claim “turf” for future projects. That said, I could imagine that in other fields this is more dangerous, if you label out your turf someone might come stomp all over it.



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