It's that time again, that wonderful time of the year. The crocuses are blooming through the melting snow; there's that scent of green in the air; the days are lengthening, warming, and clear. Attractive young bodies emerge from their pupal-like winter wear, and laughter can be heard from open windows. Yes, it's time to write that grant.
Never is the world so perfectly lovely and the outdoors so inviting as when I have to sit in a dreary little room and spin fantastic tales of what my hardworking little laboratory will do if only we can, please, please, please,have some cash to buy stuff. Our view of the universe will be changed forever;the textbooks will be rewritten, cocktail party conversation will gush with our discoveries, and the anti-science contingent will quake with fear at the sheer clarity of our vision if only we can buy, um, stuff.
No, this isn't going to devolve into a harangue about the funding system(well, a bit), and I'm not going to complain about my lot in life (well, yes I am). No, this is going to be something else altogether – a problem for which I simply don't have a clear answer, but a problem nevertheless. The trouble is, we just aren't trained to do this – this writingthing we have to do so much of.
And grant writing is the worse sort of writing. At least when we write our papers or chapters or books or even our `Mole' columns, we can be pretty sure that someone will actually read them (maybe tens of people, in the case of this column, tens and tens). Even better, we can be cited (oh rapture– we have a way to tabulate our success in terms of how many times people cite us, although they may not have actually read what we've written,but that's fine, since we don't read their work either). But a grant? If we're really lucky, three people will read it, or at least parts of it. And they can't actually tell anyone that they read it! Not even us, the authors! They can critique us of course, make suggestions for correcting this sentence or that, or insist that we go back and do it all again (many months from now, in the hope that most of the work will become so outdated that they will never have to read it again).
No, the only function of grant writing is to get the money. If we do succeed, we don't care much about the suggestions and criticisms. If we don't,we only care about the bits that will `get the freakin' money' (or, in technical terms, GTFM). Yes indeed, we carefully write our resubmission(“I'd like to especially thank the reviewers for their careful and rigorous evaluation of our application and for their stunningly insightful suggestion to use an antibody in the second sub-aim of the third section,despite the difficulty in finding antibodies that are specific for computer simulations. Thank you, too, to the conscientious reader who thought we were selling a used automobile and made an offer provided he could take our application for a test drive.”) but we don't mean any of it. We only want to GTFM.
Yes, I hate writing grants. If I had the chance to GTFM by eating raw insects or traversing badly constructed rope bridges over raging waterfalls,I'd do it in a flash. But grant writing is like bleeding onto the page for days and days and days. Ouch!
So finally (finally!) I'm getting to the point. Well a point anyway. If you know somebody who is writing a grant, keep away. Understand that the grant writer is like a wild animal with an injury – you may want to help, but its more likely that you will lose a finger than that they will thank you for it. You may walk past their office and see them staring into space, but this is not the time to say, “Hi, I see you're taking a little break, so I wanted to ask you whether you think I should do my experiment before or after lunch.” Don't lightly rap on the door, thinking that this will avoid breaking their concentration. Don't call or leave notes. If your spouse is writing a grant, do not ask about next month's dinner arrangements. Don't go near them, talk to them or query them. Because, in that innocent moment of interruption lasting mere seconds, the key idea that was going to bring it all together into one brilliant worldview will be lost forever. What was this marvelous idea? Well, we'll never know now will we! You will have produced the mental equivalent of a computer crash, and it will take hours and hours to reboot, during which time the grant writer will play unlimited games of solitaire or completely reorganize their MP3 files rather than work on the application. And it will all be your fault.
This all sounds dreadful, doesn't it? Here's the part where I say that it isn't really so bad, that writing grants not only serves the essential purpose of providing a fair and even-handed way of distributing limited funds to those with the best ideas but also provides a focus, a chance to re-group and reorganize a research program into one that is most likely to yield results that are both publishable and useful. That's what I should say. But I won't,because writing grants is just about the worst thing a scientist has to do,and I'm including those scientists who pump squid stomachs to find out what they eat. Just run away now while there's still a chance that you can make a living like most of the rest of the world – you know, kissing up.
Okay, you still want to be a scientist and write grants. Then I suppose we mentor-type people should teach you. Shouldn't we? But ha! We don't. Yes, now and then people who work for the funding agencies give seminars on how not to write a grant, but the little problem with that is that they neither write them nor review them! So, while you can get some pointers from them (they do see an awful lot of the process), they aren't going to teach you what you need to know to get funded. And we're certainly not going to tell you, because then you might get the grants that we're trying to get. Better to keep you in the dark.
To be continued...