Triaged Grants (and a Passover Lesson)

Michael Tomasson recently wrote a great post on what to do about triaged grants. One of the things about it that was so great was in the last para:

My bottom line is that while the writer of an unscored R01 needs to do some serious re-working, the NIH also has some serious re-working to do to address the reality that the job of a scientist has become predominantly about playing the grant game..

One bit of Tomasson’s post I want to (mildly) disagree with was the end of the above quote:

playing the grant game, which takes years of experience for most of us, rather than rewarding the smartest creative minds, which are usually younger than the grey-beards we reward now.

There are a lot of data about who gets funded and who doesn’t and lots of other posts. They are all worth considering. The money graph:

Percentage of R01 investigators age 36 and younger and 66 and older 1980-2010.

I’ve done a fair bit of ranting about this statement (as some who is between 36 and 66). I don’t really agree that young = (creative and smart) and old = (hanging onto money by political means). I know it’s harder to get funded today. And its even harder for younger people to get funded. We all spend too much time writing grants and other non-science stuff. And its particularly mind-numbing, let alone scary, threatening and a whole host of adverbs for the under-36’s.  Yet setting up an age-war isn’t going to help anyone, and it will waste lots of energy that could be devoted to science. There have always been older people in science, even before you were born. Ugly, nasty, selfish older people. I don’t believe the “I lived through this, so you should too”. I may be tired of defending the Good Folk amongst boomers, and you may be tired of hearing me do so.

Age issues, however, are not my main message. This is:

It does not take years of experience to be good at playing the grant game.

I have tried to do my part through a bunch of grantsmanship posts. There is lots of other Good Stuff on the web. But there is also lots of help around you. There are people who will read your grant, and critique it. One of our young turks persuaded our research office to spend some money to get a “professional” critique of her proposal (ie paying a sympathetic big dog to do a review). Its not hard to organize a “grant club”. Read someone’s SA’s each week, and then have a discussion about them. Nearly every university, especially med schools in MRU, has seminars on how to write a grant. I’ve run several for my T32 and opened it up to anyone who was interested. Except lots of people had excuses on why not.

Anyone can learn the grant game.

The biggest issue, in my years of mentoring is that younger faculty don’t know that they need to learn. Or they are too arrogant to think there is anything they can learn. You could take the four children at Passover (wise, wicked, simple and the one who does not know to ask) and apply this lesson to members of the faculty, not just junior, not just young, but the middle-aged tired folks, and the greybeards, too. The four children each ask a question, my edit to apply to grant writing (leaving aside religious implications, belief in a particular deity, and no offense meant to Jewish People):

  1. The wise child asks: “What is the meaning of … the rules and guidelines, written and unwritten, the things we should do to get funded?”
  2. The wicked or selfish child asks: “These guidelines are fine for you, but they don’t apply to me”.
  3. The simple child asks: “What should I do?”
  4. This final child is incapable of asking a question.

The standard answers to the questions are also instructive:

  1. To the wise child: We should instruct this child in all the laws and customs of Passover grant writing.
  2. To the wicked/selfish child:  It is obvious that this child does not want to be included in the celebration or the community, so we answer harshly, “We celebrate Passover offer help in writing grants because someone once helped us and we pay it forward of what the Eternal did for each of us. If you had been in Egypt, you would not have been thought worthy to be redeemed funded.” [note: this is possibly one of my favorite responses, simply because I would love to say this to various trainees. But you don’t have to. They won’t get funded.]
  3. We answer simply that “with a mighty hand the Eternal brought us forth from Egypt and from the house of bondage. Here is how you start….
  4. Because the fourth child doesn’t have the capacity to ask a question, we must explain that we observe Passover in order to remember what the Eternal did for us in delivering us from Egypt. writing a grant is a difficult process, and here is how it works.



8 thoughts on “Triaged Grants (and a Passover Lesson)

    • Nice to see that your insight and wit are still an inspiration. I love reading your play “The Throne” with my neighbors at our Senior Arts Colony. Our residents are 55 – 93 and many have never been to or read a play. Thank you for your wisdom.

  1. I was not raised Jewish, so I have missed out on the four children of Passover story before this, which is a shame because I think it is a great framework for sorting out how to deal with children (of all ages) who come to you with a need for mentoring. I have seen all of these in undergraduate research assistants and it took me a long time to develop flexible skills in mentoring…when here was a story to give me the gist of four approaches all along!

    However, I was raised in Hawai’i, so I have been enjoying your use of akamai in the comments on Drugmonkey and Dr Isis on whether Co-I’ing is a bum deal or not. And finally, as a junior scientist (always) in need of mentoring, I have been generally appreciative of all of your awesome posts on grantsmanship, though I have been quiet in the comments.

    Mahalo nui loa,
    Anonymous Postdoc

  2. One of my bestest of besties was a prof at UH (in chemistry) for years. She gave me akamai (as well as others). Besides, she knows where the bodies are buried, and I honor her akamai on a daily basis.

  3. Pingback: Links 3/4/14 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  4. Note: My comments on The Throne were posted as a reply to verna safran tomasson (Michael’s mother). They were not posted for Michael’s blog. ( first time user error).

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