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Why I hate writing grants

No, it’s not the writing part that bugs me.  I actually like that part.  Being able to put together well-constructed plans and rationales is fun.  Describing a project-to-be is fun.

But… there’s another part about it that I really hate.  It’s that you can’t be authentic.

I often use the analogy between writing a grant and “marketing.”  In a grant, you’re trying to “market” a project or idea.

However…. there’s one important difference.  In a real marketplace, you don’t have to please anyone and everyone.  You only have to please a particular segment of people.  For example, if you open a used car dealership, your marketing will be targeted to a segment of people that buy used cars.  It’s very different from the segment of people that you might target if you open a Mercedes dealership.

The grant marketplace is artificial.  In order to get a grant funded, you get assigned a random group of peers, and you have to please all of them.

Imagine a car dealership where you get randomly assigned customers by some outside entity, and if you don’t please every single one of them, you fail.

This leads to excessive conservatism.  If your idea is “too innovative” then you’ll displease at least one reviewer, and your proposal is toast.

On the other hand, if it’s not innovative enough, you’ll bore all your reviewers, and you’ll also end up a bit burnt and crispy.

So it’s a game of trying to be just innovative enough, without ever crossing that line of being even slightly speculative.

In other words, it’s a game of make-believe. You either avoid innovation (and never accomplish anything really great), or you pretend in your grant to not be innovative, then once you get the grant, you be innovative despite the ruse.  This is a risky game, because if your being-innovative-despite-their-conservativism doesn’t pan out over the short term, then you’re left trying to explain why you spent all that grant money that was supposed to be for a conservative (but boring) project on something innovative that didn’t work out.  So, most people I know – if they do this at all – they only do it with a tiny fraction of their grant money.  Yet the truly innovative ideas often require more than just a tiny little trickle of resources and money.  So they stall out.  Yes, I’ve had it happen.

Everyone (ok, not everyone, but most intelligent people) knows that good science actually requires risks and innovation.  A look at the history of Nobel Prizes demonstrates that many of the ideas were, at the time they were first announced, considered utterly heretical.  In other words, un-fundable.  Just check out this video featuring Dan Schectman, the discoverer of Quasicrystals:

This game of make-believe is not only annoying, it’s damaging.  It hurts progress.  It damages the reputation of the scientific community (i.e. why, after 10’s of billions in cancer research don’t we have better cures?  The main answer is in what I just wrote above.  And don’t be deceived, the public does notice the lack of sufficient progress!).

If others are interested in “playing the game,” I can help them play it better (based on what I learned over many years of doing it successfully).  That’s what my business has been all about for the past two years, and I’ve helped many people achieve grant success.

But I have no interest in continuing to play that game for my own work, dumbing down all my innovative ideas to please overly conservative review panels by pretending that the ideas aren’t actually all that innovative (or altogether hiding the innovation).

So, if you’re going to play the grant game, realize what you’re in for.  If you enjoy doing incremental projects (with the occasional bit of innovation thrown in), then the system may work fine.  But if you prefer to really innovate and go beyond… well, then, be prepared to do a lot of pretending that you’re not quite so innovative.



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2 comments… add one

  1. Hi Morgan,
    I have bought your book on grant writing and watched your videos on YouTube. I was wondering if you have any advice for us people in the humanities? Especially how to market research that does not appear –to the naked eye– to be saving lives or changing the world as immediately and directly as the sciences do.

    1. Hi Margot – the main thing is this: who is your audience reviewing your grant? What do THEY think is important and exciting? It doesn’t matter whether it cures cancer or not; that’s not what YOUR audience of reviewers is looking for. But they are looking for something. They’re probably looking to make sure that you’re doing work that’s considered at the cutting edge, but not too risky. That’s leading whatever trend is happening in the field. That kind of thing. The key is to realize that your reviewers are people like you who have their own unique interests and opinions, and the more you understand what those are, the better off you’ll be.


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