Emerging from a few months of grant writing, I realize that fall and winter has passed, and today is supposed to be the first day of spring (I think). Not that there are many clues of changing seasons in La Jolla. While the rest of the country turned into an ice block this winter, here it’s been +/- 70 degrees throughout, with people complaining bitterly when it gets 65 (of cold, by the way). Anyway, talking to some colleagues the other day, I realized that my approach to grant writing is somewhat different; and this made me wonder if I am doing things right.
My general policy has been to write a grant application after I have strong foundations of a good story, rather than writing a grant almost immediately after having a good idea and getting the money first. In the latter model, scant preliminary data is put together, and – honestly I just realized this – experiments are solely designed to “fit” the Aims in a grant application and not for any other reason whatsoever. So basically, the work to be done is contingent upon the grant that will be ultimately funded. This way one can write several grants, wait to see which one is funded, and then do the work proposed in that one. Same approach as "carpet bombing", where chances of hitting a small target are extremely high. Why would you NOT do that Dr. Roy?
There are advantages to my approach, which was not a conscious decision but now needs to be articulated. For one - and I think this alone may be justification enough - I am excited to write the damn thing (yes it is such a chore, in case you haven’t done it). The questions I propose to answer are already ones that have become a fiber of my lab (and I know what the questions are, trust me this can be trickier than you think). We are collectively thinking about them, working towards solving them, discussing them all the time, arguing how others have gotten it wrong and of course our model is the best one, dreaming how our "grand-big-paper-that-solves-the-whole-damn-thing" would look like, and so forth. It is easy to carry the excitement in your writing, without having to write "I am excited about....". It just is, and the writing will show.
It is also an advantage practically. Writing a grant is often like a game of cards, where the game is "hey lets guess what the 25 cards are". Let’s say you have 3 aims, so each aim would be ~ 8 cards (OK, 8.333....). Now, you know some of the cards. These cards are, of course, the preliminary data that your grant will stand on. In most cases, you can only see them faintly – some more visible than the others. Now let’s say you only hold 3/25 cards – 2 for Aim 1, 1 for Aim 2 and 0 for Aim 3. On the other hand, let’s say you hold 9/25 cards 3 each for Aims 1, 2 and 3. Which grant will be easier to write, and will probably be a better one? Now I know some may be saying but when you start, you have little or no preliminary data**. I say to them, don't write a major grant until you can see – again, either fully or partially – ~9/25 cards that you want to find (I got my first R01 after 4 years as a faculty, if anyone is wondering). Obviously, an exception is researchers who have a long-standing track record with a solid body of work behind them. Study sections often safely predict that they will find all 25 cards no matter how many they know today…you can complain, but the facts are that they usually can.
Stop this card game nonsense Dr. Roy, could you be more specific? OK, here's one. Usually my "research strategy" has four sections - Rationale and hypothesis to be tested, Experimental Approach, Potential outcomes, and Pitfalls/alternatives. “Potential outcomes” can be particularly difficult to write if you don't really have any idea what the results might be (i.e. you have minimal or no preliminary results). Basically, you have to say “oh, it can be this….or it can be that...etc.” However if you hold a few critical cards, it’s much easier to gently persuade the reviewer that your idea has merit - showing him/her the right card at the right time. "Yes", you tell him, "it can be this or that, but look – my card seems busy, there is a lot of black in it, and I can faintly see a moustache. I really think this is the king of clubs....don't you!" Maybe it’s the king of spades, and that's some fodder for the "pitfalls" section, but I hope you see the point. Sorry I am back to the card business again, but the very least, this is almost certain to engage your reviewer and that is never a bad thing.
The main disadvantage of my approach is lost time. From submission to funding, an R01 can take up-to two years or more. Two years can be a long time, especially if money is tight. Even in the best case scenario, when a grant is funded in the very first submission, it will be almost a year from submission to funding. Making matters worse, in the funding-crunched situation today, it is almost customary not to fund the primary application – even if it is good (“oh, he can always come back….”). So in reality, you are looking at months of more experiments, revisions and resubmissions, making it two years or more since you wrote the grant. I am not even considering the time that you initially spent getting the preliminary data (usually 1-2 years or more). So now you are talking about 2 + 2 = 4 years from the time you started the preliminary studies and the time you get funded for it. Where is the money for 4 years going to come from? At the end of the day, if the grant never gets funded, and people working on the grant have to leave – even if they did a nice job – who is the winner here Dr. Roy? I won’t even try to argue against the points above because they are good ones.
The fact is that many of the ultra-rich PIs with 3 or more R01’s are indeed carpet-bombers, so this strategy clearly works. As I think about it, in the end it all boils down to who you want to be. Or – as the band Who famously crooned – “Whooo are youuu!” Are you someone who wants to spend all their time writing grants, whether you are fully invested in the proposed experiments or not? Are you someone who mainly wants to say in public “I have five R01’s”, generating oohs and aahs from the audience? Is prestige within the department, along with the occasional smooch from your chair for being ultra-rich, more important to you than publishing an important paper that changes the way people think? Or would you rather than be close to the work – talking about it, thinking deeply about the results from your students/postdocs, learning from others, exploring new collaborations, and maybe – god forbid – actually doing the work, in other words, doing things that probably attracted you to Science in the first place? Or – wait a minute – why can’t you do it all? Yes, some do.
So when you look into the mirror tonight, ask yourself “WHOOOO ARE YOU, woo hoo, woo hoo…yes I wanna know….”
**Thoughts about preliminary data: It is really, really important that these data are of the highest quality possible, and that you believe in it. Otherwise it will just look like bad make-up in your grant (also by the way, the belief I am talking about is not the "Karl Rove inspired" induced belief in any x/y/z cause - yes that also works - I am talking about the belief that a honest scientist has in good data).
P.S. if anyone from my study section is reading this: If you think that the ideas in my grant are going to move the field forward, please fund it NOW. Don’t turn me into a carpet bomber...
Some old ones Reposted...
8/18/13 - A Classification of PI's - find yours' in the list!
7/6/12 - Way to a "Science paper"
5/30/11 - 20/20 Hindsights
9/30/11 - Evolution of a bizzare, new Idea
11/17/2011 - Rationale for curiosty-driven research...
lessons from a 4 year old
1/28/12 - "GTFM" - hilarious article on grant writing!
The PI Blog
This blog exists because my wife seemed a bit tired of being the only recipient of my random pontifications on life and Science for many years; and gently encouraged me to vent in a blog instead. From time to time, I put down thoughts that occur to me as I naiively stumble through a life in Science - bestowed upon me by accident (literally!). Please keep in mind that these musings are rather obvious things of little or no use to anyone, and are certainly not personally targeted in any way, even though they are obviously derived from my experiences. OK, enough said.