Sunday, December 13, 2015

Blog hiatus (hopefully) over, and a few thoughts on writing grants

Had at least a couple folks ask why I haven’t written any blog posts lately. The answer is some combination of real-life work leading to writing fatigue and some degree of lack of inspiration. On a related note, writing grants sucks.

There have been some grants that I’ve had fun writing, but I would say they are in the distinct minority. I am of course not alone in that, but one of the reasons often trotted out for hating writing grants is that many scientists just hate writing in general, and I think that is true for a number of scientists that I know. Personally, though, I actually really like writing, and I typically enjoy writing papers and am reasonably fast at it, so it’s not the writing per se. So what is it that makes me leave the page empty until just days before the deadline while patiently waiting for the internet to run out of videos of people catching geoducks?

Part of it is definitely that grantwriting makes you sit and think about your work, how it fits into what we already know, and how it will tell us something new. It is certainly the case that grants can force you to critically evaluate ideas–writing is where weak ideas go to die, and that death can be painful. But I don’t think this is the whole story, either. I would say that the few grants I’ve really enjoyed writing are the ones where the process focused on thinking about the science I really want to do (or more likely already did) and explaining it clearly. So what is it about the other grants that make me try to find virtually any excuse to avoid writing them?

After a bit of reflection, I think that for me, the issue is that writing a grant generally often just feels so disingenuous. This is because I’m generally trying to write something that is “fundable” rather than what I really want to do. And I find it really REALLY hard to get motivated to do that. I mean, think about it. I’ve got to somehow come up with a “plausible plan” for research for 5 years, in a way that sounds exciting to a bunch of people who are probably not experts in the area and have a huge stack of applications to read. First off, if I ever end up in a situation where I’m actually doing what I thought I was going to do 5 years ago, I should probably be fired for complete lack of imagination. Secondly, the scope of what one typically proposes in a grant is often far less imaginative to begin with. Nobody ever proposes the really exciting thing they want to do, instead they just propose what reviewers will think is safe and reasonable. Not that these are some brilliant insights on my part; I think most applicants and reviewers are acutely aware of this, hence the maxim “An NIH grant should have 3 aims: 2 you’ve already done and 1 you’re never going to do”. So to the extent that everyone already knows all this, why do we bother with the whole charade?

I should say that I feel far less disingenuous writing “people” grants, by which I mean the fund-the-person-not-the-project grants like many junior investigator awards, HHMI and those as part of the NIH high-risk/high-reward program. At least there, I’m focusing more on the general area that we’re interested in in the lab, describing what makes us think it’s exciting, and why we’re well positioned to work on this topic, which is far more realistic than detailing specific experiments I’ll use to evaluate a particular hypothesis that I’ll probably realize is hopelessly naive after year 1. Of course, I think these are basically the criteria that people are judging “project” grants on as well for the most part, but at least I don’t have to pretend that I know what cell type I’m going to use in our RNA FISH validation studies in year 4… nor will I get dinged for a “bad choice” in this regard, either. This is not to say that writing people-grants is easy–it is particularly tricky to write confidently about yourself without sounding silly or boastful–but I’m just saying that the whole exercise of writing a people-grant involves writing about things that feel more aligned with the criteria by which I think grants should actually be evaluated.

(Sometimes I wonder if this whole system exists mainly to give people a way out of directly criticizing people. If you’re not too excited about a grant, can harp on technical issues, of which there are always plenty. I think this is an issue with our culture of criticism, which is probably a topic for another blog post.)

Carried a bit further, the logical conclusion to this line of argument is that we shouldn’t be judged on prospective plans at all, but rather just on past performance. Personally, I would much rather spend time writing about (and being judged on) science I actually did than some make-believe story about what I’m going to do. I remember a little while ago that Ron Germain wrote a proposal that was “people-oriented” in the sense that it suggested grants for all young investigators, with renewal based on productivity. His proposal engendered a pretty strong backlash from people saying that people-based grants are just a way to help the rich get richer (“Check your privilege!”). Hmm, don’t know that I’m qualified to delve into this too deeply, but I'm not sure I buy the argument that people-based grants would necessarily disfavor the non-elite, at least any more than the current system already does. Of course the current people-based grant system looks very elitist–it’s very small, and so naturally it will mostly go to a few elites. I don’t think that we can necessarily draw any conclusions from that about what people-based funding might look like on a broader scale. I also think that it might be a lot easier to combat bias if we can be very explicit about it, which I think may actually be easier in people-based grants.

As to the backlash against these sort of proposals, I would just say that many scientists have an inherent (and inherently contradictory) tendency towards supreme deification on the one hand and radical egalitarianism on the other. I think a good strategy is probably somewhere in between. Some people-based grants to encourage a bit more risk-taking and relieve some of the writing burden. Some project-based grants to keep programmatic diversity (because it would help fund important areas that are maybe not fashionable at the moment). I don’t know where this balance is, but my feeling is that we're currently skewed too far towards projects. For this reason, I was really excited about the NIH R35 program–until you follow this eligibility flowchart and find out that most roads lead to no. :(

Oh, and about the actual mechanics of writing a grant: my personal workflow is to write the text in Google Docs using PaperPile, then export to Pages, Apple’s little-used-but-perfect-for-grants word processing tool. The killer feature of Pages is that it’s SO much better than Word/Google Docs at allowing you to move figures to exactly where you want them and have them stay there, and as an added bonus, they will keep their full PDF-quality resolution. Only problem is that there are a grand total of around 18 people in the continental United States who use Pages, and none of them are writing a grant with you. Sad. Still better than LaTeX, though. ;)

1 comment:

  1. Arjun, your suggestion of shifting the balance towards people-based grants is quite compatible with the idea of funding postdocs via fellowships. I like both directions.