Grant Risks, their context and the seven ways to manage them


Should you ever doubt that risk is an important factor in grant evaluation, read on. I just looked at the reviewer comments for a European grant which missed funding despite an overall score of 87/100.  Let me just quote the reviewer comments under evaluation criterion 3 – Quality and Efficiency of the implementation:

“Potential risks in research activities are insufficiently substantiated. The mitigation strategies are only superficially addressed and insufficiently justified.”

To paraphrase, ” you have identified potential risks, but have not described them in detail – thereby indicating you need more awareness on how these virtual risks will take shape during your grant. Consequently, the strategies to lessen or handle these risks are superficial and whether they are the right ones to mitigate these risks is unclear.”

Note that the applicants are not accused of ignoring the risks. They are criticized for not demonstrating they have a clear idea of what these risks are and how to deal with them should the improbable occur.

So let’s learn about risks and the strategies to address them.

The norm ISO 31000:2009 defines risk as the effect of uncertainty on [accomplishing your] objectives. In the case of a grant, uncertainty affects pretty much everything: your budget, your plan A, your choice of a suitable approach and collaborators, etc.  Uncertainty’s effect is to make your project deviate from what you expect will be the normal course of events. Uncertainty introduces deviations around the normal (not a new concept, really) – some which can be compensated for, others which have far reaching and long lasting consequences. Where do these deviations originate from?  Unexpected events top the list. Either you did not now such events could happen,  or you presumed they would not happen, yet they did, and vice versa, or you minimized their likelihood,  or you misjudged their consequences and outcomes.

risk-management\CC BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson

You, the PI, are the risk owner and manager. Since you are accountable for taking risk, you need to justify the risk you take, within the grant application. But first, you have to identify the sources of risk, evaluate the degree of risk, and establish your risk profile. With your risk profile in place, you are ready to draw a risk-management strategy.

ISO 31000 identifies seven ways to manage risk: one to increase it, one to maintain it, and five to mitigate or cancel it.

  • Increase the risk exposure when greater risk would have an even greater overall payoff.
  • Monitor the risk closely without removing it for it has both beneficial and negative aspects.
  • Decrease the odds of the negative risk by reducing uncertainty.
  • Dilute the unwanted risk by sharing it.
  • Change the outcome of events that affect the objectives because they increase task cost, introduce delays in task schedule, lower safety, or worse impact on the environment.
  • Remove the risk trigger (circumstance, situation, process, environment, practice)
  • Cancel the activity associated with the unwanted risk or replace that activity with one of lower or no risk.

Read again the book chapter on risks and determine which of these seven ways to treat the many risks summarized page 176 would be the most effective in your context. Context does matter because it favors the occurrence of events. Context is both external and internal. Each PI will be influenced differently by it.  The external context includes the scientific trends and how they affect the PI’s employer , the political, financial, economic context at a local and global level, as well as the quality of the relationship between the grantor and the PI’s organization. The internal context includes the organization of the PI, its objectives and policies, the support environment (equipment, facilities, IT, grant officers, availability of postdocs, collaborators…), as well as how well networked the PI is within and outside of the host organization.

Risk matters. Clarity in what risk is will make you a more effective troubleshooter when the probable becomes certainty. And It will make funding you… less risky!


Author: jllebrun

General Partner at Scientific Reach - training scientists in the science of clear writing and presenting - grants/papers/posters.

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