You guys are doing this all wrong!

October 2, 2013

Every good grant application boils down to one or more of a couple of key statements.

  • “The field is totally doing it WRONG!”
  • “That which all those idiots think is true….ISN’T!”
  • “These people are totally missing the boat by working on that instead of working on THIS!”
  • “How can they possible have missed the implications of THIS amazing THING??!!??”

Good grant applications also have a single goal and conclusion.

  • “….and I am here to FIX EVERYTHING!”


The trouble is that you can’t say this in so many words. First, because you sound insane. Second, because some of those self-same people you are calling blind, stupid fools are the ones reviewing your grant. Third, because people reviewing your grant might have some respect for those other people you are calling fools. Fourth, because you may stray into calling your friendly Program Officers at the NIH fools for funding all that other stuff instead of you.

The most acceptable compromise seems to be to focus very heavily on the fact that you are here to “fix everything”. To focus especially on the “everything” and less on the “fix” if I am being totally honest. This puts the focus more on the potential amazing outcome of what you intend to do and much less emphasis on why you need to do it. It has a more positive feel and avoids insulting too many of your reviewers. And avoids telling your PO that they are doing everything wrong themselves.

So I tend to do this in my grant applications.

This occasionally feels like I am battling with one hand tied behind my back since I  am pulling my punches about how ridiculous it is to fund anything other than my current proposal. You can talk about gaps in the literature. You can go on about synthesis of approaches and your amazing discoveries ahead. And you should do so.


But ultimately there are an awful lot of scientists with big promises. And even more with highly refined skills and effective laboratory operations. And to my eye it is less effective to argue that my own proposals are just more-good-than-thou. It is essential to argue why I am proposing work that is much better. And for something to be substantially better, well, that sort of implies that the status quo is lacking in a significant way.

I hate having to make those arguments. I mean, don’t get me wrong….it IS my native behavior. Which I am sure is no surprise to my readers.


It is just that I’ve worked hard to stamp that out of my grant writing due to my considered view that FWDAOSS is not a really useful strategy.


And now I have to reconsider the wisdom of this approach.


Better to burn out than to fade away?



3 Responses to “You guys are doing this all wrong!”

  1. NIH Budget Cutter Says:

    Sad indeed, but this is how all exponential cloning stories end, with lots of cut-throat competition and cannibalism.

    While there are many factors and actors to blame, the leadership (or lack thereof) of the NIH is the biggest culprit. The issues with too many PhDs being produced and too many postdocs being imported are not new. Yet despite ample evidence of a massive PhD glut, a built-up far bigger than the biomedical labor market can absorb, the NIH has refused to act. And even today, as bubble bursts and pain is evident and getting worse, the NIH still refuses to even recognize the basic roots of the problem, as illustrated by a recent Rock Talk post by the very NIH Director Francis Collins. Together with Rockey, they state the following:

    . . . [T]here is no definitive evidence that Ph.D. production exceeds current employment opportunities. . . . (See more at:

    Therefore, I am confident that no solution or relief is coming any time soon. In fact, when leaders are so lost and/or blind and/or out-of-touch, problems can only get worse. My advice to you is the same I gave you a while ago: get out of the sinking ship while you still can. It is way too risky for your own families and careers to try to outlast this crisis. The crisis will not go away any time soon. It is a slow-moving train-wreck. It is much wiser to look for other job opportunities today, while you are employed and in-the-loop, than unemployed or while being forced-out by your research institution.

    The system built by the NIH (and abused by academia) has reached its carrying capacity. More funds will not solve the basic problem.


  2. Ha! Could not agree more! Spot on…I smiled when I realized my most successful grants followed this strategery. I also include a section, “In the absurd scenario where I’m wrong, I’m still right!!”


  3. The Other Dave Says:

    I think there is a point in everyone’s career where the cockiness of initial success gets the better of us. I have seen the arc in my own proposals. They started out interesting and thoughtful. I got funded easily and became very successful. Then my proposals got annoying. They reeked of arrogance and entitlement. I was properly beaten down. Now I am back to interesting and thoughtful. Experience does matter.


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