Daniel Lemire's blog

, 9 min read

The insanity of research grant proposals

13 thoughts on “The insanity of research grant proposals”

  1. Ulrik Nyman says:

    You should be willing to divert from the plan as soon as something better comes up. That does not mean that it is not a good thing to do some planning.

    I think the granting agencies should put slightly less emphasis on the prediction of the outcome. The scientists need to know what they are studying, but as you point out they should not and cannot know the results before they start.

  2. The scientists (…) should not and cannot know the results before they start.

    And yet you must state the opposite of this truth to be funded.

  3. Tomas says:

    Hence the time-shifted nature of the work by established researchers. At time t_0, you get your seed money, get some results, and propose to get them in a grant. By induction, propose to deliver results achieved in time t_i at t_{i+1}. Then actually deliver as promised, miraculously every time.

    Failure to launch with your seed money leads pretty surely to tenure denial.

  4. @Tomas

    You are not supposed to tell the world about our secret strategy. 😉

  5. DJ says:
  6. Corporate says:

    The same happen in large corporations too. If you want to start an innovation, you have to tell exactly how much time and money it will cost, and how much it will provide in return for the corporation.

    Which is obviously totally nonsense, who on Earth has a crystal ball ?

    The whole point of this strategy is to protect the budget approval process. This way, the board in charge of this approbation will safely be able to claim in the future :
    “We are so surprised, the project leader told us it would cost much less and gain much more !!! He lied, so it’s not our fault !”

    And that’s the main objective : shift blame. Yes, they want you to lie. They want it to be protected from their choices.

  7. JeffE says:

    _It should follow closely prior work. Departures from either your own work or other people’s work will sink your proposal._

    This does not fit my experience at all. If the reviews I’ve received on my own proposals are typical, proposals that include halfbaked ideas that radically depart from my previous work are much _more_ likely to be funded than “safe” proposals describing staid five-year plans with predictable outcomes. (And yes, I’ve had grants based on halfbaked ideas that utterly failed.)

    Your mileage, of couurse, may vary.

  8. Djamé says:

    I’d suggest to erase comments #3 and #4. Just so we’re safe..

  9. @JeffE

    You might be right, but what I stated is folklore in many communities.

  10. Boris says:

    yeah, it is their money, their rules… 🙂

  11. David says:

    @Corporate, this just happened to me last week. Great idea, but I couldn’t quantify both the effort and the results in time for budget submissions. BUT, I got a pat on the back and an ” ‘at a boy!” out of it — so i got that going for me.

    I guess an increase in knowledge is not a good enough ROI for most people with money, because the reason they have money in the first place is that they care about making more money. And, of course, making the kind of money that can fund research requires that you put a ROI value on everything you spend money on. Torus Knot completed.

  12. Amit Sheth says:

    Absolutely on the mark.

    Now NSF proposals are shot down because you do not provide “sufficient preliminary work” as in NIH- one reviewer wanted details on how I would create the training set (where I have tens of papers that have used Machine Learning)! When you have to give nitty gritty details with specific details on algorithm you will use to solve a problem, how are you going to invent totally new strategies and unproven approaches?

    Capable scientists are giving up or busy submitting their proposal, so some warm bodies show up for reviews. I really liked the ideas Fabio Casati puts in his blog along this direction:


  13. Eelke Folmer says:

    The F&A rates are too damn high! Funding rates would be in the 40% if we reduce the overhead.