Feb 4, 2011

Grants and jobs: be astonishingly amazing or grammatically correct

From "The astonishing secret to getting jobs, grants, papers, and happiness in biomedical research":
I hear a line of advice all the time that I can confidently tell you is nonsense. It goes like this: "In order to get your grant supported, it has to be letter perfect, with absolutely no mistakes, and every experiment you propose has to already be done." Don't believe this, it just ain't so. We get this advice from folks who don't get their grants supported (and hey, I've been there), who see nit-picky reviews that point out every little problem, no matter how trivial. Hence the advice. But this misses the subtext. A favored application has astonished the reviewers, who can be very forgiving about mistakes, chancy experiments, and the occasional missing control if they are convinced that the work has a real chance of affecting how we think about something important.

So, if the reviewers look for ideas, why do they write nit-picky reviews instead of saying "sorry, your idea is obvious and it won't change the world"? I doubt that the problem is that most of the grants are not impressive and only one proposal that was "F 'ed" (do they really avoid the word "funded"?) is astonishing. Rather, it's the phenomenon of "the 41st chair" described by Merton in his The Matthew effect in science:

The French Academy, it will be remembered, decided early that only a cohort of 40 could qualify as members and so emerge as immortals. This limitation of numbers made inevitable, of course, the exclusion through the centuries of many talented individuals who have won their own immortality. The familiar list of occupants of this 41st chair includes Descartes, Pascal, Moliere, Bayle, Rousseau, Saint-Simon, Diderot, Stendahl, FIaubert, Zola, and Proust.