I’m working on a couple biggish grants at over the next couple months. I’m doing something that I haven’t done before, at least not as a PI. I’m working with grantwriters, under the support of my university. These are for grants to support a bunch of people doing a variety of things, with many organizational components that are only tangentially connected to the science.
In a lot of organizations, professional grant writers play a big role in the acquisition of federal grants. Sometimes the PI of a big project didn’t write it, but instead had it handed to them. I am doing a ton of work on these grants — not handed to me by any measure — but if we get funded it won’t be a result of my brilliance in crafting the nuance. That’s someone else’s job on these.
If I’m writing a typical NSF research grant, I’m on my own. Selling a grant on the basis of its science is my job, and without detailed and up-to-date technical knowledge, it’s not possible for a hired grantsmith to know whether the project is spot-on. To date, the grants that I’ve run as PI have been of my sole construction. (And perhaps that’s why my well is set to run dry next year.)
But oftentimes when I’ve gotten dinged in review, it’s not because I lacked an important question, or solid methods, or a clear plan for success. It’s because there was something that the reviewer or the panel thought could be a problem, that I didn’t think of as a problem so I didn’t even address it. It’s hard to anticipate things you don’t anticipate.
You need to see your big idea in the Right Way, packaged with confidence that doesn’t inspire readers to imagine every little thing that could go wrong. Adopting the proper authority is critical. If you’re too tentative, reviewers will not think you’re not equal to the task. If you’re too confident, reviewers will think you’re bitten off too much, failed to conceptualize Important and Relevant ideas, or failed to anticipate certain roadblocks.
Having a great research idea and plan is definitely not all you need to get funded. Especially nowadays. Having experience on a panel, and friendly revisions from colleagues, and help from collaborators is all good. But having someone who writes grants for a living (even more so than an R1 PI, that is) can alert you to what other people will see as problem areas that you’ve failed to anticipate. They know how to say things in a way that signal a high probability of success.
In business, they say you need to have money to make money. I imagine those who are charged with developing a cadre of successful grant-acquiring faculty might be thinking along the same lines. I’m used to writing grants out of nothing, without the provision of time or support or anything else. But when biting off a huge proposal, I’m a lot less reluctant when I know that I’ll have support to get it over the finish line. When I’m done with these, and on my sabbatical, I’ll let you know what I thought of the experience.