Field of Science

The Grant Is Dead, Long Live the Grant

Alas poor R21, I knew it well.  There comes a time in every person's life when you have to face reality. For me, one of those times came yesterday. My R21 grant, a two-year exploratory proposal, was assigned to a study section. The study section is the group of scientists who will evaluate your proposal and decide if it warrants funding.

Of the last 14 grants I have submitted, 12 went to this study section (11 of the more involved R01 type of proposal and 1 R21 ). Of these, 0 were discussed. 0/12 (o.00%). Basically, these proposals were considered by three reviewers to not be competitive (on average), so they were not discussed in front of the study section panel. In a study section, of the proposals discussed a fraction, roughly 10-20% actually get funded. So I took the time to write 12 proposals of which 0 were considered to be in the top ~30% (i.e. those discussed). Maybe I suck at writing grants.

The problem is that the 2 grants (both R01s) that did not go to this study section (each went to a separate study section), both were scored and discussed in front of the whole panel. 2/2 (100%). So maybe I don't necessarily suck at grant writing.

Now you may be asking why I sent my grant to the former study section and not a different one. Well, in my cover letter I suggested 2 study sections I thought were appropriate that were not the 0/12 study section. The administrators at NIH disagreed with me and sent it to the elephant graveyard of study sections. I no longer consider this recent submission to have any hope of funding or even discussion.

It's kind of the name of the game, but consider this. Consider the number of hours I spent reading the literature, writing, revising, and working on this proposal. Multiply that by 12 (not entirely accurate because there are resubmissions included in that cohort, which require less time) and you have an approximate amount of time wasted on grant writing. Now multiply that by all the people at my institution doing the same if not more and multiply that by all the institutions doing similar things. That represents the amount of completely wasted unproductive time. Compare this to teaching, where students learn something or writing reviews or papers where there is a tangible product at the end of your struggles. Fuck, playing Diablo III on my playstation at least provides some enjoyment and I get to level up!
When I started my career, the valid argument was that the time spent working and reworking a grant put you in kind of a zen state of understanding and thought regarding that area of biological research. I agree with this thought. Now however, we are cranking out grant after grant after grant that are basically different aspects of the same thing. After that initial submission, the zen of understanding is lost to the trials of trying to get funding. Admittedly if your ideas suck it doesn't matter how many times you submit a shit idea, you won't get funded. However, from my reviews (from the 3 reviewers) suggest it is not a shit idea problem, but a great idea, but there were some others we liked better. (And by others, I mean other researchers we know who we like better.) So I am stuck resubmitting grants hoping these other groups do not have proposals in at the same time and that my proposals are good enough to compete with all the others in the same boat I'm in.

Maybe I'm just bitter, but when my proposals go to other study sections, they are suddenly competitive (n=2). I don't know what the message is here other than I believe my recently submitted proposal is already DOA and I highly discourage anyone in the US from entering into the field of biomedical research.

And on a more important and happy note:

But a massive YAY to the 5 supreme court justices with whom I agree and more importantly to the multitude of US citizens who are slightly more legal than they were before.

The last few days before a grant deadline

Why does it always seem that when the grant deadline is imminent, all the work I've done is basically irrelevant and I have 100 times more to do than I already have done? No really, why?