Ad Lagendijk Ad Lagendijk 10 April 2009

Will the reviewer of my grant proposal steal my ideas?

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Posted in Ethics, PhD life, Presentations quality

Writing grant proposals is a fact of live for every group leader. This writing can be quite time consuming. Your chance of success depends on a number of factors. The factor I want to discuss here is the originality and the detail of the proposal Reviewer running away with my ideas.

New idea
Pursuing a new idea is what makes the life of a scientist fascinating and challenging. But also demanding. Just continuing one’s research on old ideas is much easier. But a new idea is very difficult to come by.  Continuation of old stuff is much easier. Grant organizations want new ideas. Supporting continuation is in our society never appreciated. ( Unless it is Scottish whisky.)  So even when you are just going to do the same research you have to package it in the form of a new idea.

Catch 22
Writing a proposal means also overcoming the following catch 22. If you suggest something totally new the reviewers will comment that you have no experience in this new subject so the chances of failure are high. Even if the the whole grant system was specially meant for high risk ideas, the reviewers will still hold it against you. One reason being that they never have the time to read the proposal review guidelines. And if you propose something that is not new, the chances of success for your research to succeed are very high . But now the reviewers will complain that it is not new.

Solving the catch 22
The solution of this catch 22 is that you make clear in the proposal that the proposed research is indeed new but that your passed performance is very good and indeed involves numerous occasions where you started, and successfully completed a whole new subject.

Help, there is another catch 22
So you have decided to write a proposal with some brand new ideas, very likely immature and in need of improvement. My problem is that I have only a few new ideas and to survive in science I need to cherish and develop them. But I also need those grants to survive. To get this proposal granted I have to lay out this idea in great detail. Who will read the proposal? In my country typically three to four anonymous international colleagues who work in the same field as I do. And who are also desperately in need of new ideas. In addition to the reviewers a larger number of people, sitting in some kind of jury, have the chance to read the proposal.

I know I am paranoia, but I do not trust all reviewers (including myself). After some time everybody who is developing his own new ideas will forget the important initial stimulating stuff found in somebody else’s the proposal. Or even worse, will start research in the same direction, sometimes not even realizing where the original idea came from.

Anyway I am to write a new grant proposal. Deadline in three weeks from now. And again I am confronted with this catch 22. I do not know how to solve it. There ain’t much time left.

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  1. Otto Muskens

    20 Apr 2009 2:30, Otto Muskens

    The problem of the rogue reviewer seems very realistic for us competitive scientists, however apparently the grant managers believe in the honesty of mankind or do not care. Even the suggestion that stealing ideas happens is not appreciated by many who see this as improper pessimism, or worse, ‘Ill doers are ill deemers’. Of course I agree with your concern which may be even worse when you are in the start of your career.

    I have already heard from a colleague whose first grant proposal was sent out to 10 referees of which half rejected due to ‘conflicts of interest’, after reading it of course. Finally his proposal was not funded.

  2. Allard Mosk

    21 Apr 2009 9:48, Allard Mosk

    I agree, this is a classic catch-22. I have seen reviewers blatantly comment “I like the idea and will start a similar research line as soon as I can. By the way, I rate the quality of this proposal as average”. (In my branch, “average” is a death sentence for a proposal) There is a role for the panels and grant managers: they should (and fortunately often they do) do more than bean count the reviewer comments.

    Juries and panels trust the reviewers to behave not only honestly, but even honorably. Even if they suspect dishonorable behavior, there is very little they can do, except disregard any undue negative comments. It takes an insightful jury to do even that. As a jury member, would you rather (a) bean count the reviewer’s comments, which is easy to do, and your *ss is always covered, or (b) stand up against comments which appear unduly negative (or positive), thereby exposing yourself to criticism and possibly pssing off some influential people, maneuvering yourself into a catch-22 ?

    This blog is about surviving as a scientist. I argue if you take position (a) you have survived, but not as a scientist. You have become a bean counter, and you will actually enjoy sitting on panels, and deciding on continent-wide grant schemes. Apparently, surviving as scientists involves a lot of catch-22’s. Maybe some day I can get good at them.

  3. Ad Lagendijk

    21 Apr 2009 10:41, Ad Lagendijk

    In the past I have made a suggestion to several granting agencies regarding grant proposal reviewers. Sometimes comments of reviewers on grant proposals are devastating, immoral, or something like that. I am not sure that jury members spot these. Let me be very clear: I am very much in favor of critical comments by reviewers. But I have seen a reviewer comment, about a colleague of mine, like this: “this researcher should not get any proposal granted”

    So here my suggestion: grant organization should have moderators (like any forum on the internet). The task of the moderator is to filter, what I call, immoral criticism by reviewers. If these moderators are established scientists they know exactly what “immoral” comments are, and no further sharpening of the definition is necessary.

    Needless to say that the grant organization did not like my idea.

  4. Unregistered

    21 Apr 2009 14:27, Klaas Wynne

    Allard said ‘“average” is a death sentence’. In the UK, with EPSRC, a “good” (as opposed to “outstanding”) can already be a death sentence. That means that a well-meant minor critique by one of your referees can already kill off your proposal. That means there is nothing to filter as Ad suggested but the whole process just becomes a lottery (especially since the funding rate is 10-20%) and malicious referees can hide behind a “good”.

  5. jacopo

    21 Apr 2009 15:03, jacopo

    In my (extremely limited) experience with grants I was thought that half of what you claim you will do is something you have already done (or that is well on his way of being completed) but not yet published. This way chances someone can really steal your idea are lowered (it looks unlikely that they will be faster that you if your experiment is already done); on the other side this has some chance to work only if you are asking money to go on with an already established project. If you are a young one who would like to start his own line of research you better pray all of your referees are saints.

  6. Unregistered

    21 Apr 2009 19:10, Klaas Wijnne

    @jacopo: I could not possibly comment on that… 😉

  7. Unregistered

    1 May 2009 22:36, How to write grant proposals « Successful Researcher

    […] 3: see this post at the Survival Blog for […]

  8. Unregistered

    1 May 2009 22:49, Successful Researcher

    Thanks for the candid post and interesting discussion! I linked to it in my recent post How to write grant proposals.

  9. Unregistered

    16 Feb 2013 3:25, Steve

    I have thought about this catch 22 for a while myself.
    The right timing of the idea of getting almost everything done but holding back the publication until the proposal is under review is tricky if there is just one annual submission window (I am applying to NSF as a theoretical physicist). Since I usually have an abundance of new ideas I just put decoys in my proposal, that is ideas with a dead-end only I know or ideas I don’t really want to work. I keep the most exciting ideas to myself until the money starts trickling in.
    At conferences I put out false hints about what I might be looking for.
    This might sound paranoid to some but it happened several times after I gave a talk or talked to someone that these people started working on it often a year or more later and did’t even remember that I gave them the initial seed.

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