Every PI has that question in mind as they write their proposal: How much risk should I take in my grant? Too much, I will be rejected, and too little, I’ll be rejected also.
A few years back Dr Rafal Zielinski from MD Anderson (Texas University) and I were invited by the Polish Foundation for Science to give a seminar on Grants in the beautiful city of Gdansk. Gdansk University Dean of Intercollegiate Faculty of Biotechnology, a uniquely gifted, both bold and bald professor, Dr Igor Konieczny, also gave a talk “Grant Writing in Poland, Perspective and Advice”. During the Q&A came the question of how the grant review panel regards risk. In his answer, Dr Konieczny used a very apt metaphor worth sharing: that of serving in tennis.
“The ideal situation is not to propose plans that are too risky. In tennis, with your first serve, you would target the corner of the court, but if you fail, with your second serve, you are simply going to pass the ball over the net. Design the grant application so that one thing is safe to achieve.”
Flickr: Carine06 – Roger Federer CC-BY SA 2.0
Young investigators often consider older PIs with envy, and also cynicism. They think that, by the time the PI submits a proposal, the preliminary work is so extensive and has removed so much risk and given the PI so much experience in the domain that feasibility is guaranteed; The ball will pass over the net. Naturally, much of that preliminary work was paid for by an earlier grant – which strengthens feasibility. Young investigators feel that their first serve should impress, send the ball in the corner of the court. Indeed, some of their later serves could, but the first serve should not. Simply hitting the grantor-sent ball (i.e serving their needs) and avoiding sending the ball into the reviewer’s net would already be a great achievement. The reviewer’s net catches the ball when the grant idea lacks strength: low significance or overused approach unlikely do deliver interesting results. Start there. Never mind the jump smash a la Roger Federer, the attacking volley a la Martina Navratilova. The donor referee will not be impressed if the ball hits the net.
Focus on getting the ball over the net first. This means your first specific aim should contain little risk, yet be seen as valuable on its own.