How the wealthier PIs submit way more grant applications than you could ever imagine

September 17, 2013

in a comment from Evelyn:

As a grant writer, who has to learn a whole new field every 2 weeks, a good review is a life-saver! It gives me an accurate, hopefully an up-to-date snapshot of the field, leads me to the original research that I can then pull, read, and cite. A bad review is a an awful waste of my time but at this point, I can tell a bad one by about third paragraph and I don’t bother reading the rest of it. When I can’t find a good review, my life gets a lot harder since I don’t have the time to read all of the junk research on every topic before I get to the good stuff. At that point, I hate to say it, but I search through glam-journals and usually, those original papers will have enough background to lead me to the important papers in the field.
So I don’t care if the review authors are in the field or are first-year grand students, as long as they do a good job. But in my experience, the ones that are in the field usually give a better overview of the topic.

I need a cold compress.

Apparently review articles make it easy for a professional grant writer, who has no prior knowledge of a field, to simulate the expertise of the PI. Who, in most cases, the study section members presume did most of the writing.

If this minor deception* works then some PIs can afford to hire a professional grant writer to, presumably, submit more grants to out-compete those of us who cannot afford such luxuries.

I do not have sources of money available in my professional budgets that can be used to hire grant writers to craft more applications than I can write myself.

This professional grant-writer thing does not hearten me.

* There is absolutely nothing in the NIH grant rules that says that the people listed as participating Investigator staff need have anything whatsoever to do with the writing/crafting of the application.

77 Responses to “How the wealthier PIs submit way more grant applications than you could ever imagine”

  1. Evelyn Says:

    Again sorry – did not mean to ruin your day. If it makes you feel better, I work for a department and not a single PI. I do know of some PI’s that have their own grant writers, but those have non-restricted funds usually from the university or a hospital for such a person.

    I really like what I do though. And I am pretty good at it too.


  2. Wealthy departments (surgery depts, I’m looking at you) have people like Evelyn. Their faculty then get grant wealthy. The school gets overhead wealthy. As long as this game continues in this way, the rich will get richer. BTW – in my experience this particular perk is used to help younger faculty more than older. If you’re not grant wealthy by the time your hair turns, you’re history.


  3. drugmonkey Says:

    Evelyn, I should make it clear that I do not blame you personally one bit for this. It is a job invented by someone else, someone pays you to do it, it leverages your skills, etc. Good for you.

    I am just looking at this from the perspective of one who does not have such help.

    (and no, it doesn’t make me feel better that you work for an entire department of competing PIs!)


  4. Busy Says:

    You mean to say they hire professional grant writers instead of getting their postdocs** to do it for them as is common practice in many fields??

    **Notice that having postdocs write your grant applications in contrast to professional grant writers does not benefit the wealthier PIs because, … erh, never mind.


  5. Busy Says:

    DM seriously dude, you are only noticing this now?

    The entire system benefits the wealthier. Grab two identical professors, one lands by pure random interviewing process variation in a top 5 department, the second in a top 15 but not top-10 department.

    Come back in five years and the top-5 professor will have noticeably more publications, thanks to better students, larger grants, better colleagues next door with which to collaborate, better library and more reactants readily available in the departmental supply dispensary to name but a few of the advantages.


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    “Reminded” dude. Not “noticing”


  7. drugmonkey Says:

    But you are saying I need to get postdocs to write my grants? Gotcha.


  8. Busy Says:

    But you are saying I need to get postdocs to write my grants? Gotcha.

    Everyone that I know does it, across fields and institutions. You mean you don’t?


  9. drugmonkey Says:

    not really. parts here and there but for the vast majority, nope. I’d rather they were writing papers.


  10. The Other dave Says:

    If it’s OK for me to take credit for a proposal that someone else wrote, then is it OK for me to also take credit for experiments that other people have done?

    Oh, wait… that would be the proteomics core. Or behavioral testing facility…


  11. qaz Says:

    I’d be really curious what sort of grants Evelyn is writing and what her success rate is. I think it would be really hard to write a good R01 that would fly at the study section that I’m on. Not only do I know the work of every single PI submitting to my study section (yes, I can say Bunny Hopping), but it’s always seemed to me that the writing has an individual flavor that tastes like their papers. So either someone else is ghost-writing both their grants and papers, or the ghost-writer is a heck of a writer.


  12. drugmonkey Says:

    and would it matter to you qaz if you suspected that the proposal tasted like someone else wrote this one?


  13. Busy Says:

    I had a professional grant writer help in two occasions. In each case I wrote and entire draft and then passed on for comments to the grant writer. In one case I felt the polished grant was actually worse while in the other I felt it was substantially better. In both cases the polishing process consisted of a back-and-forth of questions and suggestions. (e.g. did you mean to say this? would it be correct to add that? are there better examples of applications for this? etc).


  14. TeaHag Says:

    Grant writers aren’t necessarily “ghost writing” anything. My significant other serves in this capacity and is supported via internal funding. He’s part of a team who will provide assistance to any faculty member with priority given to junior faculty seeking NIH funding. He’s not in anyway shape or form responsible for the science-concepts or approach. He simply helps shape the language and refine the presentation. In an era where funding lines are so tight, who wants to throw away inspired or innovative research simply because of flawed presentation? You say it yourself, ultimately significance, innovation and approach are what are rewarded- it’s important that they not be lost because of poor english or overuse of the passive tense. Most junior faculty these days find themselves in competition with their friends and even colleagues for limited funds, the old days of having people that you respect critique your application in preparation are dead- everyone is too busy and too desperate. I see it as a logical investment on the part of his institution who recognize that this is part of the on-the-job training for new faculty. After all, if you aren’t exposing your promising post-docs to the skills and techniques of grant writing, quite different from paper preparation, where are they going to learn them when they leave your lab?


  15. drugmonkey Says:

    You say it yourself, ultimately significance, innovation and approach are what are rewarded- it’s important that they not be lost because of poor english or overuse of the passive tense.

    I, myself, say that making a great grant perfect is far less critical than getting out a second great grant.

    the triggering comment from Evelyn referred to using review articles to get up to speed on a topic area, this suggest far more than copy editing the prose of an ESL investigator to me. Perhaps she can correct me if wrong on that.


  16. BioDataSci Says:

    Looks like it’s the Minnesota Twins vs. the New York Yankees. The Twins might pull off a heroic championship every 20-50 years, but they won’t win consistently because they’re not on an even playing field.

    But what makes the playing field uneven? Is it indirect money being ciphened back into grant writers? Or is it money coming from other sources?


  17. Where do the PIs get the money to hire such grant-writers? I doubt they can actually budget for them openly on proposals. Or are they hired by the institution out of overhead like the administrative assistants and IT folk?


  18. Dr. Noncoding Arenay Says:

    “Where do the PIs get the money to hire such grant-writers?”

    Probably from endowed professorships or other “special” funds.


  19. qaz Says:

    It’s not so much that it “matters to me” as I’m curious about whether a ghost-writer can actually write a viable grant. (I figure the disparity in lab-data-collection between rich and poor is going to be larger than whether the rich have a ghostwriter to write their 12 pages or not.)

    If she is helping fix language, then most R1 universities have people and programs that can help with that – in my experience (seeing before and after, and in talking to people who have used these), that is not such a big deal. It might help someone who is lacking real English skills, but it’s not really going to help your typical struggling junior PI. As DM says writing a second good grant is more important than perfecting the first one. Most departments have some sort of mentoring program designed to help junior PIs learn the skillset of writing grants. (This is much of what DMs blog used to be about.) But, as DM says, her description of using reviews suggests more than that.

    If she is writing equipment grants and new building grants, I guess those are more cookie cutter (maybe?), and I suppose one could learn to write generic grants like that. My department has excellent secretarial help for things like training grants, getting tables and papers listed, and cajoling faculty to send biosketches, and stuff like that, but, again, that doesn’t sound like what Evelyn is doing.

    But I don’t see how anyone but the PI (or postdocs, but we’ve always had that- and, again, in my limited experience, postdocs need more help writing than they save by doing it for you – if anything it costs the PI time training the postdocs) could write an R01. (Note, I’m talking about when a postdoc writes the structure and general grant, not makes a figure or writes a method paragraph or something. Given the time-sink, one could argue that having a postdoc write is a training exercise, and one could argue whether the postdoc should be a “research assistant professor” to claim some independence and get some credit for the writing, but that’s a different debate.)

    Now I’m really curious what sort of grants Evelyn is doing and what she’s doing for them.


  20. drugmonkey Says:

    You don’t think a half-decent Bio-something PhD who was entirely unfamiliar with, say, the brain could be asked “hey, go find me out everything that is known about the effect of nicotine on Gertzin signalling in the PhysioWhimple nucleus” and could go grab a handful of reviews and write a significance/background paragraph?


  21. becca Says:

    That job sounds awesome.

    Also, the background and significance is easy, and I don’t think the specific aims are difficult to imagine a grantwriter taking charge of. I can go to a seminar on almost any NIH funded work and tell you at least three good experiments that are obvious next steps. Ditto for many papers. Whether they are *good* ideas for a grant for a *beginning* faculty person is an entirely different question (usually, obvious experiment is obvious is a drawback). But in the context of a wealthy lab that can just throw the person-hours into it? I could see that strategy working fine.


  22. Joe Says:

    How awesome would your job as PI be if you didn’t have to write grants? Imagine Evelyn works for you and is really good at grant writing. You sit down with her and explain your ideas. You write the aims and a list of experiments. You send her the prelim data figures. She writes the grant and you edit it. Think of all the time you could spend on your science instead of proposing science.


  23. drugmonkey Says:

    To be honest, Joe, I’d rather live in a world in which my grants had more like a 50% chance of being picked up and I just wrote the damn things myself. Many fewer of them of course.


  24. dsks Says:

    “I doubt they can actually budget for them openly on proposals.”

    No, but likely as not somewhere in the tangled haze of audit-proof creative accounting that passes for university finance, it’s the tax payer footing the bill.


  25. Dave Says:

    Grants should only be awarded to PIs who write their own fucking applications. Seriously this is ridiculous.


  26. anonymous postdoc Says:

    Seriously, half of the postdocs I know spend significant time writing their PI’s R01s. The postdocs that don’t either are not trusted by the boss, or working for someone with the (quaint? honorable?) impression that writing the grants is part of the PI job description. Sure, it’s not like having a professional grant writer, but at least it’s not you banging out the drafts – and I can see the appeal to farming all that shit out to trainees even though it’s exploitative as fuck.

    At least a professional grant writer can be professionally recognized when he or she does a good job writing someone else’s shit.


  27. Dave Says:

    If a PI ain’t generating the data or writing the grants, what exactly is the PI doing?


  28. Evelyn Says:

    Wow – if I would have thought this would be the reaction, I never would have left that comment. First, if all your grant writer does is check your English, you need a better grant writer. Second, have I ghost written applications? Yes, but not as many as this conversation assumes. Most of my job is making applications better and I cannot do that unless I understand the field, which is where the whole review comment came from. I had a grant earlier this year with an Aim 3 done in a model that did not express the enzyme they were studying. Should the PI’s have picked that up? Yes, but they didn’t. Also, I have a lot of experienced PI’s who like to come and bounce their ideas off of me. Again, I need to understand what they are talking about if I am going to be of any help. Third, I am by no means paid off of any research funds. My department budgeted for my position the same way they budgeted for an administrative director, for an accountant, for a protocol manager.

    As far as ghost writing is concerned, when I am asked to do it, I always make it clear that no amount of fancy writing can replace experience and that they can use my document as a starting point but they really need to work on it as well. How many do that? Not enough, but they should. I cut the ghost writing cord at the end of year 3, if they can’t write their own grants at that point, they should be looking for a different career.

    Let’s not hate on grant writers here – I would have loved the opportunity to have my own lab and write my own ideas into grants but for a variety of unfortunate circumstances, never got that opportunity.


  29. Juan Lopez Says:

    Dave, the answer is: traveling the world on high-flyer meetings, evaluating grants and in committees deciding the future of the field. Every now and then they do make it back to the lab to complain that the post-docs don’t have a new set of results.


  30. Crystal Voodoo Says:

    I do freelance grant writing and editing during my non-lab hours. Obviously I’m not as awesome as Evelyn but I do have some experience with the subject. If I’m doing a full write up I’ll usually spitball the aims with the PI. I’ll walk it through with them step by step. What are you trying to do? Why are you doing it? How are you going to do it and and what resources do you have available to accomplish those goals? I’ll get the bulk of the relevant literature from them but I my own PubMed trolling as well. Reviews are essential fill in the gaps in my own basic knowledge.

    In response to a few other comments based on my N=1 observations…

    I usually ask for a couple writing samples from a PI. People tend to have distinctive cadences, turns of phrase, and vocabulary preferences. It isn’t particularly hard to suss out and mimic. Usually a draft or two is enough to nail it down.

    As for payment, I get paid out of pocket. To them a month without Starbucks is worth keeping their lab open another 3-5 years. Obviously I couldn’t sustain a livable wage on that alone but it as a supplement it works. There are a number of departments locally that maintain a writer on staff but these are usually departments like Surgery or Ophthalmology full of MDs trying to include research in addition to their clinical duties. The funding source varies. Some are soft money positions and some salaries are folded into departmental cost.


  31. Dave Says:

    My department budgeted for my position the same way they budgeted for an administrative director, for an accountant, for a protocol manager.

    Imagine that.


  32. drugmonkey Says:

    Pretty sure most of the hating is on the PIs who are using grant writers and not the actual grant writers. Also on the system that makes what you do such a valuable service.

    Right folks?


  33. Eli Rabett Says:

    In NSF world, the science is about half the stuff in a grant. There is a lot of other stuff, CVs, budgets, budget justifications, current and pending, facilities, data plan, postdoc mentoring plan, outreach plan, etc. These all take time to do and polish, worse if there are collaborators. One of the things a grant writer can do is take that load, make everything look professional, etc. which frees the PIs time for writing science


  34. Curiosity Says:

    Maybe my field of neurophysiology is quaint, but I have never seen a PI farm out writing an R01 to a trainee. It was never my experience as trainee or with my trainee peers, and my current PI colleagues do not do it. As a trainee I was busy writing my own NRSAs, as is appropriate for training purposes and helping the lab. As a PI, it is my responsibility to write the R01(s). Obviously.


  35. becca Says:

    Dave nailed it. (not in terms of what PIs do, they do plenty, but inasmuch as what they do that *allows them to pretend they are the most scientisty of scientists*. If you don’t generate data, or write grants, and you think trainees should write papers, than the PI job is pretty clearly middle-management with a smattering of actual science. Which sounds less glamorous than “scientist in a leadership role”).


  36. Ola Says:

    I’ve never met anyone who’s engaged the services of a grant-writer, but it strikes me as simple greed, nothing else. If you’re a clinician and “don’t have time to write”, FFS lay off the clinical time and take a pay cut. What makes you think you’re so important that you can keep working 5 days a week in the clinic, pulling in $400k, AND have a research career? Sell the Porsche, take the kids out of private school, and devote 2 days a week to research, and maybe the “real doctors” (PhDs) will let you play. But having someone do all the grunt work so you can keep paying your $20k/yr. golf club membership, that’s just offensive!

    The equivalent would be if I, as a PhD, were to hire someone to practice medicine on my behalf. “I’m too busy to go back to medical school and do it myself, so I’ll just have this nurse practitioner do it for me and we’ll split the clinical revenue they bring in”. The MDs wouldn’t stand for it, so what makes it OK for them to do the reverse to PhDs?

    This is why “translational research” (whatever the f*** that means) is such a sham, folks – the frickin’ MDs see the basic grunt work as somehow beneath them.


  37. dsks Says:

    “If a PI ain’t generating the data or writing the grants, what exactly is the PI doing?”

    Oh, they’re still involved in putting grants together, I don’t doubt. The fact that they’re delegating the grunt work to somebody else will simply free up their time to rough out more applications to spam study sections with (we’ve already established that this is largely a lottery when you get passed the 25%ile barrier, so numbers count).

    Evelyn, whose honesty is admirable, makes this particularly worrisome comment:
    “I had a grant earlier this year with an Aim 3 done in a model that did not express the enzyme they were studying. Should the PI’s have picked that up? Yes, but they didn’t.”

    So right here we have clear evidence of a case in which the gross negligence/incompetence of a PI has been identified and covered up. So rather than be filtered out by the Darwinistic paradigm that the rest of us out here in the cheap seats are limited by, this investigator is allowed to live on.

    “If you don’t generate data, or write grants, and you think trainees should write papers, than the PI job is pretty clearly middle-management with a smattering of actual science.”

    Right. And it’s not clear to me that, what is essentially a glorified version of managing a McDonald’s franchise deserves a) a 6 figure salary, or b) 50% of that salary to be covered by Joe Taxpayer.


  38. Mikka Says:

    We may be ranting about a minuscule minority of applications. Does anyone have data regarding how prevalent this is?
    Maybe the NIH should require all applicants to disclose if the grant has received professional (meaning specifically compensated) grantsmithing help.
    They could guarantee that it won’t affect review by hiding it from the study sections, but it would become part of the affidavit covered by item 17 of the SFR424 form, so it would come with some teeth.
    A few review cycles of doing this would be wonderful to have an idea of how frequent this is, how it’s distributed by institute/study section, how it affects scores and success rates, etc.


  39. Busy Says:

    If a PI ain’t generating the data or writing the grants, what exactly is the PI doing?

    I dunno, research? like planning actually high value experiments and thinking about all the possible snafus? discussing with your grad students partial results to detect potentia failed experiments early on? re-targeting hypothesis given preliminary data? Reading the literature to spot new insights?

    Nah, that would be a waste of time. Grant writing it’s where is at.


  40. Grumble Says:

    becca: ” If you don’t generate data, or write grants, and you think trainees should write papers, than the PI job is pretty clearly middle-management with a smattering of actual science. Which sounds less glamorous than “scientist in a leadership role””

    I’m willing to bet that pretty much *all* PIs write a significant portion of *all* the grants they submit, whether or not a post-doc or professional grant writer also contributes.

    Just like I’m willing to bet that pretty much *all* PIs write a significant portion of all papers reporting data from their own lab.

    Why do I think that? Because I’ve seen what grants and papers look like when written by students and post-docs (including me, when I was younger), and even the most intelligent among them write stuff that needs a LOT of work to knock it into shape.

    Not to mention that many of them have no clue how to design and interpret an experiment, until I show them.

    Middle management? Or leadership? Or something in between, like mentorship?


  41. Dave Says:

    Yeh, let’s clarify some things. Nobody is blaming the professional writers (fair play to them) AND this is only relevant to a small proportion of PIs. It seems to be more prevalent in purely medical/surgical departments and I guess I can understand that more. The answer to my question above in this case would be: seeing patients etc. But if there are more basic PIs who are using these services extensively, I think that I have a problem with that.


  42. Dee Says:

    There is a job called “grant writing”? I predict that as funding situations become tighter this field will balloon. Maybe I should look into it as an “alternativee career”.


  43. shr Says:

    Dee, word!!!

    If I don’t get funded by my own grant by the year end, this will be my first choice as an alternate career. At least it will be better paid than being an adjunct.


  44. Dee Says:

    OMG… Please tell me that this is a satirical article. It seems legit but it feels so wrong on so many levels that I’d like to believe it’s a sick joke.


  45. shr Says:

    No, it is not. The adjunct salary is around $3K-7K per course without any benefits. They can be fired or discontinued at any time. Sometime the course is cancelled so they don’t get paid for the semester. The secretary in the department has better job than the adjuncts.


  46. shr Says:

    So much for the love of teaching/research/Scholarship!!!


  47. anonydoc Says:

    Let’s say that you’re a professor who is relatively new to the grant-writing game. And let’s further say that the other people in your department, who might be the first line of help for most of us, are largely, say, clinical/non-grantwriting. Or let’s say they are all assholes and unlikely to give your grant draft more than a cursory read. Or let’s say they are well-intentioned, but have poor track records themselves and you don’t trust their feedback. Or let’s say all your friends, whom you might have asked for feedback, are too busy writing their own grants to give anything but a quick glance at yours.

    What’s wrong with asking a professional for some help? There are plenty of good scientists out there for whom writing does not come easily. They have the ideas, they do their best to understand grantsmanship, they’ve got great preliminary data, but their writing or coherence is poor. Gee, maybe because their own PIs didn’t make them write grants, or didn’t teach them how to do it well. I don’t see the problem with someone in this situation getting help from a grantwriting consultant.


  48. dsks Says:

    “I don’t see the problem with someone in this situation getting help from a grantwriting consultant.”

    There isn’t a problem with that. The issue is whether it’s okay for a PI to hire someone to more-or-less write the entire proposal. I think this is rare, but as others have said, may become more common due to the tight funding.

    I was always aware that grant writers were commonly employed in the private sector and by philanthropy-based non-profits, but I wasn’t aware that this was spilling over into academia.

    It’s a tricky thing, because on the surface it seems dodgy and unfair, and yet it’s hard to really ascertain where the ethical wrong is occurring. Whether right or wrong, though, a trend in this direction would skew bias in favor of large institutions with the capital to throw at blanket-bombing study sections with grants from their faculty. This is good for the institutions, but not necessarily good for science if, as Evelyn seems to suggest, a relatively weak PI could be kept afloat by the marketing savvy of a hired pen (to the certain detriment of another PI; it’s a zero-sum game after all).


  49. rs Says:

    “I don’t see the problem with someone in this situation getting help from a grantwriting consultant.”

    There is a problem. We always have such help as mentors/colleague/spouse/students who can point out mistakes in the proposals, but it is not done professional hired person and it is not paid work. It is not clear why public money should be used for these positions any more than paying to students, post-docs and adjuncts. Unless it is accepted by the scientific community as ethical practice and all department provide such services, it is unethical. Maybe creation of such positions will open up new alternate career for PhD level scientists.


  50. anonydoc Says:

    “We always have such help as mentors/colleague/spouse/students who can point out mistakes in the proposals, but it is not done professional hired person and it is not paid work.”

    I really don’t understand the distinction. You inject bunnies to generate your own antibodies…or you pay Chemicon for them. You make all your own mini-prep solutions…or you pay Qiagen for them. etc etc.

    It is up to you as the PI how to deploy your resources for maximal efficiency. If your colleagues are jerks or terrible writers, you might be better off paying a consultant for help with your grant than having it triaged or badly scored, begging the PO for suggestions, and trying again with a six month delay.

    You can be grumpy that other people fritter their money away on buying 10x PBS when it is so much cheaper!! to make it yourself, but again, each PI gets to decide the trade-off between time and money. This is just one more avenue for it.

    (Agreed that getting someone to write the whole damn thing feels squicky… But honestly, with $1.25 million at stake, I can’t blame any PI who chooses to pay $2000 or whatever to improve their chances.)


  51. drugmonkey Says:

    It is not clear why public money should be used for these positions

    whoa, whoa. back up. Which “public money”? True, Federal dollars (i.e. the grant award) cannot be used to lobby the Federal government. Consensus seems to be this means writing grant applications to the Federal Govt for money. So you are right there. But the local State moneys are not restricted in this way to my knowledge. State Universities are *supposed* to use their own funds to write the applications that *they* (the University) submit to the Federal agency (such as the NIH or NSF). Not the PI, the University. Remember that now.

    Unless it is accepted by the scientific community as ethical practice and all department provide such services, it is unethical.

    The University submits the grant. Therefore, there is no rule about *who* writes the grant so long as, one presumes, the University has in some way hired that person for the job. (I.e., plagiarizing or stealing some content from someone not paid by the University does seem unethical and probably illegal to me).

    On what basis do you decide it is unethical for one University to have professional grant writers construct their grants while another University chooses to have their Professors, or other doctoral level research staff, do it?


  52. rs Says:

    DM, how do you know that the departments are not using indirect from your federal grant for this position?


  53. Busy Says:

    rs, there are entire finance departments making sure that they are not using federal dollars for that, which is why, for example, you are not allowed to write NSF grant applications in the summer if you have a nine-month salary supplemented by NSF.


  54. bob Says:

    I certainly don’t have an ethical problem with professional grant writers even if I’m a bit jealous. I also agree with the potential problem that the more common it becomes, the more grants will be submitted, and the more you’ll need professional help.

    More generally, I think scientists should feel free to outsource everything they can. Embrace it! If you have a good idea and you can outsource the sequencing, screening, cloning, phenotyping, statistics, and paper writing, go for it. It might even turn out to be a more efficient way of getting science done. Many pharma companies seem to think so.


  55. The department (surgery) in which I did my masters had not one but two professional grant writers. And one of them was tasked with working with three to four of the senior people (chair, vice chair, senior PIs who fall in the BSD category) and the rest had to compete with each other for the other’s services. No priority was given to junior faculty. The grant writer who worked for the senior people help churn out extra R01s, K awards for postdocs and residents, and numerous foundation proposals and fellowships.

    An extra grant or two brings in enough overhead to more than pay for this person and our institution live every institution has a hot nut for the indirect money.


  56. rs Says:

    “An extra grant or two brings in enough overhead to more than pay for this person and our institution live every institution has a hot nut for the indirect money.”

    Does anyone else besides me thinks that this comes in category of being “illegal”? A PI is not allowed to write grant while paid by federal dollar, but federal dollar can be spend in hiring a professional writer who can write grant. where should I start? The whole system is stinking.


  57. rs Says:

    BTW, I am not saying that this is not efficient, it seems to be very efficient for people/department/institutes in getting more money efficiently. But good to bring it on the table for discussion. Maybe NIH can make it officially OK to add grant-writer’s salary in the proposals in exchange for reduced over-head making it legitimate.


  58. drugmonkey Says:


    Are you familiar with the notion that money is fungible?

    genomicrepairdawg is likely speaking somewhat loosely because most Uni financial/accounting people know how to make things look right. But it may be that in everyone’s mind, the money from Endowment Account Z is *permitted* to be spent on the grantswriter in the department of Optogenetic Cancer Surgery b/c the Department staff use said writer to pull in more than her salary in IDC. Which is then used to pay the percentage of Deanlet Y that used to come out of the Endowment Z account. They cover this by assigning more Deanlet Y effort to something that sounds research-y.

    I’m sure in real University accounting there are at least six more layers of obsfucation of the connection.

    Two of which involve the football program.


  59. GAATTC Says:

    Beware of the academic-federal funding complex. No offense to hired grant writers, but they are a manifestation of the problem. I don’t think the founding fathers had them in mind when the NIH was created. Having said that, kudos to Evelyn and the like who adapt to pay the bills — many of us lack the courage to change.


  60. dsks Says:

    “The grant writer who worked for the senior people help churn out extra R01s, K awards for postdocs and residents, and numerous foundation proposals and fellowships.”

    Are we talking simply providing advice and editing for these trainees, or are we talking full drafts? Because hired pens writing trainee grants goes unambiguously against the spirit of these opportunities.


  61. Evelyn Says:

    Sure, I also don’t think the founding father’s envisioned less then a quarter of trained scientists actually working as scientists. You want to get rid of grant writers? Fix the supply-demand problem. I love my job but I think I would have also loved being a PI. Where I am, there are not too many large research universities, pharma is non-existent, and this job paid more than being an assistant professor at a liberal arts college.

    I was watching this conversation all day yesterday because I knew by the tone that it was going to go down the “this is illegal/ this is unethical/ we should throw them all out!” road. I understand the claim that this is directed at the PI’s and not the writer’s themselves, but it sort of makes me feel like I am dealing meth on the street corner. So I called up our research ethic’s officer and she assured me that there is nothing unethical about what I do. Since the question of “who pays” was also brought up, I can call up our financial department and try to get to the bottom of where my salary comes from but I think I already know and I am pretty sure it is not from any IDC’s (federal or foundation).

    So we heard from grant writers and we heard from PI’s who never heard of such a thing but we have not heard from a PI who has used a grant writer. It would be great if one of those PI’s would speak up and explain their decision.


  62. drugmonkey Says:

    If it makes you feel any better, almost anything that reflects subculture variation in science will eventually attract someone screaming about “unethical” behavior.

    I particularly enjoy the authorship conventions one but grant writing has to be a close second.


  63. Chris Says:

    Evelyn, thank you for following this thread, I’m loving your responses and appreciate your perspective! I agree with DM, this is a very amusing thread in the variety of responses.

    I had never seriously considered hiring a grantwriter, but am now pondering the pros and cons. Do you have any sense of whether a good grantwriter will have a higher success rate than the average PI? Or perhaps it’s just the sheer numbers of grants they can help PIs pump out. Either way, it sounds like it could be worth an investment.


  64. rs Says:

    Evelyn: thanks for putting this on words. Nothing against you. We all know this happens, but no one wants to talk about it. Recently, in a medical department I collaborate, they fired regular secretary and hired a grant writer who can write professional grant for chairs etc. The point of this discussion is to raise questions.

    DM, I perfectly understand that financial department and administration is quite capable, but again isn’t the job of science community to raise questions about these practices?


  65. drugmonkey Says:

    What are you questioning? Fancy accounting practices to skirt the spirit of a regulation? Good luck with that


  66. Dee Says:

    Lots of folks mad about where the money to pay these people come from but as has been noted, accounting departments know how to work the numbers to make it such that federal funds aren’t used for it. After all, don’t tons of PIs with federal grants have foreign students who aren’t supposed to be paid with federal monies. It might seem unfair but I just see it as an adaptation to a funding climate that is increasingly competitive. Survival of the fittest or most quick to adapt. If you can’t beat em, join em.


  67. Busy Says:

    Like Evelyn said this is the end result of a system that expects its best scientists to spend untold number of hours writing grant proposals rather than doing science.

    It’s absurd on its face and no true reason for it. Other countries have better systems in which people apply once every few years and the rest of the time they actually do research. There’s a revolutionary idea.


  68. Grumble Says:

    And Busy wins the prize. It’s not just lack of money. It’s how the NIH extramural system is structured that causes so many problems.


  69. Dave Says:

    I’m with Grumble.


  70. arymofdan Says:

    It seems that one thing that has not yet come up in the discussion is the effect of the professional grant writer on future tenure evaluations when junior faculty are the beneficiaries of the support system. Since tenure decisions will depend significantly on the opinion of outside evaluators, should these evaluators know the extent to which a professional writer contributed to grants (and perhaps other) products of the PI? How does one even begin to compare the success of someone with such support to successes of individuals in other environments?


  71. Evelyn Says:

    Chris, this may not be the place for me to recommend you getting a grant writer. Whether one would benefit you really depends on you as a PI – how many grants are you submitting per year? How much money do you need to run your lab? Where are your grants when it comes to scoring?

    If you are at the top and just missing the payline, I am not sure the grant writer will be able to do much to push that same grant over the top. In that case, they could help you speed up the submission process and you can submit more grants (not always to NIH, they can help you find other funding sources too) and hopefully, one of them will break through.

    If you are getting triaged and the institutional resources are not helping you find out why, then yes, getting a professional to work with you on that grant can make a remarkable difference. When I first started doing this, I had a PI with a triaged R01 with awful criterion scores. We reworked the application, were able to recruit additional co-I’s to boost the investigator status, fixed a couple of other problems, and the grant received 18th percentile and was funded in her institute. This was a few years ago and I am not sure 18th percentile R01 would get funded these days but you get the picture. I want to make it clear that I did not ghost write that application (I don’t want anyone to start screaming over this).

    All of that said, I do not personally know any freelance or independent grant writers. In my department, I see about 40-60 grants submitted per year so I see a lot of grants. I am not sure how many a freelance writer would see – Crystal may provide a better answer to that. The only reason I bring that up is the experience factor – someone who has worked on over a 100 grants has a better feel for it than someone who has worked on 10.


  72. Anon Says:

    I have only used this type of service for a manuscript, not a grant, but the basic reason is this: someone who is giving you feedback as a *favor* is simply unlikely to give as thorough a read through as someone who is doing it for pay. I received helpful comments from various colleagues, but the consultant was more detailed and also spent the time to improve schematics, which is a special skill.


  73. The Other Dave Says:

    My first 5 years as PI, I was able to brag that I had never written a proposal that didn’t get funded. But then it got tougher, so like everybody else I started obsessing about grantsmanship. There was a time that I would have hired a freelance grant writer in a heartbeat, using my own money if I had to.

    But I didn’t know any freelance grant *writers*, still don’t, but there are several companies that offer training presentations and individual consulting services. My institution hired this place to come in a few times: They do individual consulting, if anyone here is interested. I went to the workshops and listened very closely. The presenters and consultants talk a really good game, and I was sold, but when I actually started following their advice my proposals were all triaged and people said they were the most annoying grant proposals ever. So your mileage may vary, I guess.

    Eventually, a couple years ago I finally stopped worrying about ‘grantsmanship’ and went back to focusing on writing interesting information-packed documents about things that I thought the reviewers would also want to see done. I had a lot more experience as a reviewer, and knew that most projects are not going to be funded and how painful it is on the reviewers. So my writing attitude became less about being convincing, and more about producing a document that would be fun to read and learn from. That made the process of writing more fun, and I think reviewers appreciate it. And I talk to the program officers now, to find out what they actually want to fund. Overall, once I lost my sense of entitlement — the feeling that funding agencies had a duty to fund my sooper dooper stuff because it is sooper dooper and if they didn’t they were making a huge mistake — I definitely did much better. Now my attitude is: The funding agencies are the funding agencies, and if we’re lucky they ‘hire’ us to help accomplish their goals. So I try to be a good ’employee’. And entertain the reviewers who are stuck reading my proposals in the mean time.

    I agree with what Evelyn said. I think a grant writer — like any consultant — can be a huge help if you are overwhelmed with the workload or simply don’t know what you’re doing. But if you don’t need that, you don’t need that. It’s not unfair. Evelyn’s job is like any other support staff, and I don’t think there’s anything ethically wrong with what she does.


  74. Dave Says:

    Good advice TOD.


  75. mikka Says:

    TOD, that sounds very reasonable. What is your success rate if you don’t mind me asking?


  76. Jason Says:

    TOD: would you mind sharing some examples of ‘fun to read and learn from’?


  77. miko Says:

    “I had a grant earlier this year with an Aim 3 done in a model that did not express the enzyme they were studying. Should the PI’s have picked that up? ”

    Jesus wept.

    I think I see what kind of labs we’re talking about here. I would guess the cost of a good grant writer is trivial compared to the value add in indirects. I’m surprised it isn’t the norm in wealthy departments.

    Anyway, the ability to churn out tons of grants to get a few to stick is no different than the practice of churning through postdocs.


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