Grant writing: don't apply unless you are above average?

A while ago, I wondered whether to apply for funding if you knew the funding rate was only 3%. Back then, most people said to apply anyway (which I did by the way; didn't get the money though). However, today I came across this paper in PlosOne entitled: "To apply or not to apply; a survey analysis of grant writing costs and benefits" (which I found via naturejobs).  The authors did a survey on 195 astronomers and social and personality psychologists who apply to three US federal agencies: NASA, the NIH, and the NSF. They found - according to naturejobs:

[They] found that applications took on average 116 hours to prepare for principal investigators and 55 hours for co-investigators. More submissions increased the chances of receiving funding, but time spent writing a proposal had little correlation with success.

Then, they calculate how much time it takes to write one or more grant applications per year and what the chances are of getting funded. They next come with the following recommendations (emphasis added by me):

Because a 20% funding rate will force at least half of all proposers to abandon federally funded research after multiple years of effort, we recommend that proposers, research mentors, and funding agencies compare current funding rates to this value. We suggest that individual investigators should consider avoiding proposing to programs with funding rates at or below 20% unless they are confident that their research program has a greater-than-baseline chance of success or they are willing to write two or more proposals per year.

They next suggest that perhaps institutions should decide who gets to apply for low-chance funding, so that the others can focus on something else and do not waste their time writing potentially unsuccessful grants.

This is very different advice than the "always apply" that I normally hear. I know that in some of the homecountry's institutions this is how it goes for personal grants from the homecountry scientific organization: that the institutions do a sort of pre-screening round to see who gets to submit (which I find doubtful: do the institutions know what reviewers will say about a grant? And are internal committees a good way to decide who gets to submit?). And where do 'the other' people get funding to do their research?

23 responses so far

  • qaz says:

    Wait. What's the other option?

    Grants are like the lottery - it may be a long shot, but if you don't play, you won't win.

    Most people don't play the lottery because they have other options, but what's the other option with grants?

    PS. Are you sure this isn't "advice for everyone else"? If everyone else but me follows this rule, there will be fewer applications and the success rate will go up.

    • babyattachmode says:

      Ha! Yes that was my first thought: smart of them to write this and hope that everyone else stops submitting grants!
      And I totally agree with your first point: what to do if you don't submit grants with a lower than 20% success rate? Find the magic funding source with a higher success rate or quit altogether? The article doesn't comment on this.

    • E rook says:

      Grants are not like the lottery! In the lottery, it's pure chance. With the grants, you tip the scales withe the quality of you research plan, your track record, the program goals, etc. it's NOT random.

  • odyssey says:

    Where are these mythical funding sources with funding rates >20%? Of course if such existed they would be inundated with proposals as soon as their funding rates became known...

  • eeke says:

    Willing to write 2-3 grants per YEAR? Who are these people? How about 10-12.

  • odyssey says:

    Oh, and who in academia considers themselves below average?

  • katiesci says:

    Maybe there are >20% success rates in those fields? This seems like terrible advice for anyone in biomed sci because, uh, that would basically mean not applying for grants.

    Also, does it really only take an average of 116 hrs to prepare a grant application??

    • babyattachmode says:

      I think it depends what you list under "prepare a grant application". I can imagine if you 'just' look at writing up the ideas it may be that, but if you include doing preliminary experiments 116hrs seems almost nothing.

  • chemstructbio says:

    I don't write more than 2-3 grants per year—maybe I need to up my game!

  • AcademicLurker says:

    116 hours sounds excessive. I suppose my first R01 (back when they were still 25 pages) might have taken that long. Once you have few grants written, you can often cannibalize them for parts to use in later proposals, which speeds the process up a bit.

  • Noncoding Arenay says:

    Who doesn't submit at least two grants per year? Is this advice for the unmotivated or lazy?

  • LincolnX says:

    As PI, probably one really solid one per year and 2-3 either as co-I, or as a riff on the main proposal that gets my attention. I think if you are writing too many then you are diffusing your mental effort to the point that you will not mount as effective an application as you might. And, you risk burn out.

    I have 2 funded projects so I tend to hold off unless the preliminary data are very solid and the work is truly novel. I don't want to be part of the problem of greedy sumbitches whose bellies are full but keep coming back to the table and deprive others of a meal.

  • E rook says:

    I think this is an interesting analysis. You would think that departments or institutions would limit the number of applications by the vetting/hiring process. I wonder if there's some sort of ecological steady state of funding/hiring and dropout/not hiring that we are in the process of adjusting to. Like wolves eating all the rabbits, then starving, but the rabbit population rebounds the next year and they eat all the grass and starve until a lower steady state, then the wolves rebound and eat all the rabbits, so the grass grows back, and so on. Money is grass, PIs in the system are rabbits, and institutions are the wolves.

  • Morgan Price says:

    If a PI's time costs ~$100/hr (including office overhead and benefits), writing a grant takes 100 hours, and the success rate is 10%, then the cost of grant preparation, per successful grant, is ~$100,000. Does this expensive competition somehow lead to better science, or is it a negative-sum game imposed by the funding agencies? NIH and NSF should test a lottery and find out.

    • babyattachmode says:

      Interesting point. This does suggest that those 100 hours are solely spent writing that grant and that none of that time and effort is good for anything else, which I highly doubt.

  • […] (headline notwithstanding, it’s pretty good) Our literature isn’t a big pile of facts Grant writing: don’t apply unless you are above average? Baby octopuses […]

  • neuropop says:

    Sheesh (cue Senator Clay Davis here). Two a year? Who does that? Let's see -- there are three NIH cycles for R01, sprinkle in an R21 in there, add another two NSF deadlines if you get creative, if you find a computational colleague, count one more. So we are talking at least 8 opportunities a year to go for. Not to mention the sundry RFAs that might pop-up. Now that's a more accurate count.

  • BackwaterBiologist says:

    I have now been PI in two European countries, and the National Funding Agency in both only allowed one grant per PI. Grants are smaller, but have much higher rates of success. Not sure its better overall, but makes it possible to write only 1-2/ year (National Funding agency every 3rd year, with EU grants you won't get, and other smaller/ riskier grants the other years).

  • GMP says:

    there are three NIH cycles for R01....
    ... So we are talking at least 8 opportunities a year to go for.

    I would love for this to be feasible in my field (physical science; theory/computation).

    In the physical sciences, NSF has gone down to one proposal per division per year, so I have to put in 2-3 very, very different applications in the fall at the exact same time, which is tough and kills much of the summer that ought to be prime paper-writing time otherwise. Other agencies, like DOE, discourage new applications if you already have a current grant with them as part of the core program (otherwise they don't have a deadline, which is great). DoD funding is obtained at the program manager discretion, and they greatly prefer people fabricating stuff than the likes of me simulating stuff, so unless I am playing second fiddle to an experimentalist I don't have much luck with DoD.

    I would love the option to apply for more grants per year.

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