January 2, 2013
I was reflecting over the holidays about my university days working on grant applications after an email from an inventor about a team grant that “was much less straight forward than hoped.” The second I read the word ‘team’ visions of last minute faxes, conference calls, and strategically timed document revisions came to mind.
There is something truly magical about a team coalescing on a vision of what they wish to achieve, and downright chaotic about the planning of it. No matter how far ahead of the game you may believe yourself to be, all it takes is one good idea (or overlooked expectation within the team) to cascade into an application revision. Sure it’s all ‘make believe’ at this stage, but the hypothetical scenario that you describe will have very real implications for your probability of success and the resources you are granted… not to mention what you will have buy-in from your team to do once there are real dollars on the table. Partnership and team grants are the worst for these kinds of changes, because there are so many players involved.
Anyone who thinks that researcher’s don’t understand what a sales pitch is, is sadly mistaken. They just have a different audience with different expectations. They are perhaps even more subject to political whims. And just like in the startup world, most grants will not succeed. While the odd program has an exceptionally high success rate (~ 50%), in North America the majority fall somewhere between 10-20%, and success rates under 10% are common for the most competitive programs. That’s right up there with the ‘9 out of 10 startups’ will fail statistic. And while as faculty most researchers have some baseline stability, they are dependent on grant monies to enable their most ambitious and impactful academic pursuits through reduced teaching load, materials, equipment, and staff: Staff who only continue to exist so long as the money keeps coming in, and their job descriptions match a funder’s allowable expenses.
It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the chaos of the grant application process means that planning plays a less critical role. In fact, it’s the reverse. One of the most impactful moments in my career was the first grant application I helped bring to completion ahead of time. I remember vividly four of us standing around our meeting table, looking down at the hard copies of the application, and the PI saying something like, ‘We must have forgotten something. Can we really be done?’ We did a double check to confirm that it was, and instead of going out for a celebratory drink, we all went home early feeling a bit stunned from the lack of adrenaline.
The bottom line though, is that we had all nearly killed ourselves enough over past grant applications to have been committed to avoid doing so this time around. To ensure we managed to do this, we took the time to scope out the work, dependencies, and milestones as soon as we had determined the grant target. It’s worth noting that developing this map took relatively little time, but allowed us to appreciate the work and the critical timelines. This allowed us to flip the ‘mission critical’ switch early in the game, and put our late nights in early. This accomplished three things: 1) Work was completed at a stage early enough that there was limited temptation to cut corners, sacrificing quality, 2) We managed to avoid hitting any blind spots in the application process by effectively managing communication about the critical timelines to everyone involved, and 3) We kept ourselves ahead enough of the game that we had the breathing room to handle the unexpected and last minute (in other words, the inevitable) more effectively.
Let’s face it, it’s thrilling to get things done just under the wire, but a huge risk to bank on your ability to do so. And despite the best planning and foresight, the unpredictable may always make ‘crunch time’ a crunch. Understanding the work, and taking your late nights early in the game will help shelter you from the worst case scenario.