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.