Academics excel at analyzing the information arising from research in their chosen fields. Therefore, it would seem obvious that critical thinking is part of academic grantsmanship. Analysis is one of the things academics do best. Yet, many academics are blind to existing relationships, knowledge gaps, or wider impacts of their work. They are blind because they focus on the brushstrokes of their art and are unable to see the picture that their brushstrokes form. They are too close to their own work. A good first step on the road to excellent academic grantsmanship is really a giant step backward from the picture an academic researcher is trying to paint. Sometimes, stepping back to view the entire gallery is necessary. It is all about a good critical review that asks:
What am I doing?
Why am I doing this?
How does my work relate to the work of others?
Unlike artists of today, who mostly must sell their works in a free market, academics and especially scientists still work under the patronage system of old. The patrons are no longer wealthy merchants and aristocrats of the renaissance to the early industrial era; rather they are the government agencies supported by taxes or foundations sustained by inherited wealth, financial contributions, or both. The artists, musicians, writers, and even scientists of that world had to please their patrons. It is no different now.
As patrons, funding agencies and foundations express their funding preferences through grant announcements. Potential patronage begins with the written word.Patronage is obtained through the written word of the grant proposal. Excellent grantsmanship begins with a thorough analysis of the grant announcement, the application, and any other related documents. Request for Proposals (RFPs) and the like are filled with detailed information about the process of patronage. It takes superior critical analysis skills to extract the message behind the words. It is easy to focus on overall scope and obvious requirements, but subtleties are easily missed.
Grant proposal guidelines are full of these subtle details. Here are a few examples taken from NSF’s Solicitation for Career Proposals (bold text is all mine):
All CAREER proposals must have an integrated research and education plan at their core. NSF recognizes that there is no single approach to an integrated research and education plan, but encourages all applicants to think creatively about how their research will impact their education goals and, conversely, how their education activities will feed back into their research. These plans should reflect both the proposer’s own disciplinary and educational interests and goals, as well as the needs and context of his or her organization.
The Project Description section should contain a well-argued and specific proposal for activities that will, over a 5-year period, build a firm foundation for a lifetime of contributions to research and education in the context of the PI’s organization.
Successful applicants will propose creative, effective, integrated research and education plans, and indicate how they will assess these components. While excellence in both education and research is expected, activity of an intensity that leads to an unreasonable workload is not. The research and educational activities do not need to be addressed separately if the relationship between the two is such that the presentation of the integrated project is better served by interspersing the two throughout the Project Description.
These quoted passages are far from the entire solicitation, but it seems to me NSF is looking to fund CAREER Proposals that include:
- Creativity in Approach
- Clarity of Concept
- Concise in Presentation
- Connected Research and Education Activities
- Career Contributions
- Context Matters.
Missing these details entirely results in no patronage. Misunderstanding these details results in no patronage. Program officers, as agents of the patrons they serve are excellent sources of information. Always call, email or even visit a program officer if in the area. Program officers can clarify confusion about details of scope, funding trends, and project fit.
Like the mission of a nonprofit organization with a foundation or funding agency, the researcher must make a good match with the requirements of the announcement. Program officers can help make that match. Analyzing funding trends in the recent past are part of the skill set of excellent grantsmanship. Discerning where your research fits in the picture or the gallery of funded research is likewise important. Determining what parts of your research stand a greater chance for funding in the scheme of things employs those critical thinking skills necessary for success. Too many young investigators and even seasoned, but sometimes naïve established researchers make the mistake of trying to do it all in a grant proposal. Chances for patronage slip away when overwhelming project details obscure the science, leaving the reviewer to wonder about the line of inquiry.
Researchers with excellent grantsmanship skills learn to step back from the picture that is their research, employing their critical thinking skills to find knowledge gaps, relationships, and new lines of inquiry in the gallery of research worthy of that elusive scientific hypothesis. A new perspective might just give rise to a new hypothesis. A new hypothesis, supported by new results, might just lead to a new theory. New theories change the world. Who knows?