The difference between what goes in a proposal vs. what you actually do

I know I’ve ranted and raved about this before, I just can’t find the link. Possibly it was when I was blogging with Isis the incomparable.

What we call “grant-writing” is really proposal- writing. A grant is what happens when you are funded, its the cold hard electronic cash that makes it possible to do the work. You are free to propose what ever you like. Of course, you are judged on how well you can do it, and whether it is feasible. Reviewers are incredibly sensitive to people proposing more than they can realistically do, just to sound good, as well as to people proposing too little, to make sure that they can do it all.

When you do get the money, it is a grant, not a contract. A contract is for producing a specific end product. A specific set of measurements, a specific device, drug or dataset. A grant is to follow what you proposed, where it takes you. That means you don’t have to do exactly what you proposed, and in fact, if it is clearly not feasible you had best change your strategy. NIH cares about what you produce (papers and results), not that you keep pounding your head against the wall with something that doesn’t work and the only accomplishment being a massive  headache.

So here is the grey area: In a proposal everything you include should be something you intend to do, something you hope to do. You should never include anything just because you think the study section or reviewers want to hear/see it in the proposal. On the other hand, you don’t have know exactly how things are going to work out. If it was something you had absolutely done before and had all the results, and knew it was 100% feasible because you had already done it, there would be no point in writing the grant (because if it was already done, why the fuck haven’t you published it????).

[small aside, I had a mentor who actually did this – wrote up proposals for work he had already finished. He got funded all the time, and just held off publishing till the grant was out the door. This was in the days when it took a minimum of 9 to 10 months to see something in press, let alone out in the dead tree journal. I do not think this is remotely possible today].

NIH wants you to find that exciting result and run with it, even at the expense of a funded aim. There is a place in your progress report to change your aims. To change your direction. They anticipate that this will happen. Most of all they do not mind change. They embrace change. Actually, they embrace results.

So include things in the proposal, that in good faith, you intend to do. If its a bit of a stretch, say so, and say how you are going to deal with stretching towards it (a new technique, a different age of animal model, a human sample that might be hard to get).

One of the things about growing up is knowing where the system is flexible, and where it is not.


One thought on “The difference between what goes in a proposal vs. what you actually do

  1. Just the caveat for non-NIH folks that grant vs. contract depends on the Federal funding agency. DoD, for example, funds contracts, not grants…so you had best be sure what you propose is doable or else you will be doing a lot of paperwork.

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