Thursday, March 12, 2015

Getting a grant

Kleanthes Grohmann (recently featured here) sent me this paper (here) which surveys the costs and benefits of grant writing. The participants are from astronomy and psychology (social and personality). The paper is wroth taking a look at for it confirms what many might have thought reflecting on their own experience. So, for example, grant writing is VERY labor intensive. Conservatively, it seems to require about 10 times the amount of time of other scholarly pursuits. Moreover, large amounts of good work is never funded and the collateral benefits of writing the grant and not getting funded seem pretty mild. At any rate, whatever their collateral benefits, it does not seem that these are sufficient to inspire more grant writing effort.

There is more that is interesting:

  • Success does not seem to be gender biased
  • Funding is very competitive, more so if one has not landed a grant in the few years before applying
  • Amount of time spent on writing grant not apparently correlated with greater funding
  • There is a correlation between applying for more grants and getting more funding, though "the causal direction might go either way"
  • Many good things don't get funded
None of these results are surprising. But take a look. It's interesting. 


  1. Bob Dixon used to say that he always wrote his grants very quickly (and always got the money, back in the day, don't know how he's doing now).

  2. The take-away recommendation from the article is interesting. It focuses on the need to direct efforts at funding applications that stand a better than minimal chance of success. There are certainly lots of promising applications that aren't successful. But there are also lots of things that get submitted that are either not ready, or poorly prepared, or not suitable to the funding program. Some of these may reflect insufficient effort, but probably many reflect a lot of not terribly fruitful effort. I wonder if a lot of time could be saved by giving proposers more guidance at an earlier stage, before they have invested in creating a full proposal. Some grant programs formally institute this, but the current paper suggests that departments also do some of this internally. These multi-step processes can be a bit of a pain, but they probably save time and improve quality in the end. Similarly, for a journal special section that I'm currently editing (with Matt Wagers and Claudia Felser) the journal requires a two-step submission process, where authors have to submit a paper proposal before they're invited to submit the full paper. I think it's saving a lot of author and reviewer time, as wholly inappropriate submissions are stopped before the author goes to the trouble of preparing the whole paper. The full papers that we see seem to be better as a result.

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    2. NorbertMarch 14, 2015 at 2:57 PM

      Funny, I thought that their main point is that there are very many already good and fundable grants that don't get funded. Your conclusion seems to be that we should make sure that there are more good fundable grants. How this will raise the rate at which good grants get funded is a bit obscure to me.

      Now maybe what you ate saying is that the things that don't get funded are indeed not that good in general and that the right way to solve this problem is to make the submissions better. But how will more good grants chasing the same few dollars make much of a difference? This is quite disanalogous to journal submissions, unless of course there is an upper bound on pages. Then maybe the overall quality will go up (perhaps a good thing) but many good papers won't get in.

      Is your point that having an extra step in the cycle would be advantageous because it would make grant application less of a time sink? If that is your point, I am skeptical. As you know, we do lots of betting of some grants in the dept at UMD. It probably results in better product, but from where I sit it sure seems to be very labor intensive.

      I am sure I missed your main point. if so, sorry.