The same & not the same: grant vs. paper

Roald Hoffman, Winner of the 1981 nobel prize in Chemistry, wrote a enlightening book: THE SAME and NOT THE SAME. Both sides of the photo show the Khmer temple. The same temple?

IMG_6579I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Roald Hoffman is a renaissance man with an encyclopedic culture and many talents outside of chemistry. But this blog is about the differences between a grant application and a scientific paper. The link with chemistry will become apparent later.

In my earlier “Ins and Outs of Grant Writing” classes, I asked the participants to list out what the differences are. Having no experience in grant writing, they listed out the obvious differences, for example: a paper is about completed research, a grant is about future research; a paper is to get recognition and citations, a grant is to get money; The structure and contents of a paper (mostly the IMRAD structure) are quite different from the structure and contents of a grant which also includes a budget, a schedule, a detailed list of past achievements and grants received.

By the time the class was finished, the list became more comprehensive… but note the ellipsis!

Differences between writing a grant or an article 
Grants: pre-significance
– It presents a plan
– It has more justification on the approach / methodology you want to adopt
– It presents alternatives (plan B) to mitigate risk
– It is read and accepted by more lay people, or people with less expertise in your research topic
– It has to show return on investment
– It needs to convince the readers that you are the right person to do this research (why me) and that you will use the money properly in the timeframe of the grant.
     => need to convince the project is feasible.
– It has a large admin overhead
– The visuals to represent flow / process / ideas play a very important role
– resubmission is limited
– Selection is collective (panel)
Articles: post-significance
– It presents a report
– It gives greater details
– It is read and accepted by experts in the field
– The why me aspect is less important
– It needs to convince the readers that the conclusions are correct
     => need to convince on conclusions
– Its visuals are more of the type that feature results: tables / graphs
– Resubmission is easy
– Selection is individual (editor)

One aspect was missing from that list, one that participants expected to be the same for both grant application and manuscript: the writing style. “The same and not the same” applies here. Roald Hoffman’s book is amazing. His writing style is clear. His sentences are precise, yet with a simpler structure and reduced number of clauses. He bonds with his reader, not chemically, but intellectually, by being clear and accessible, by making sure the jargon is properly explained and illustrated if need be. In his review of the book, Carl Djerassi, published scientist and author but better known as “the father of the pill”, writes “[Hoffman] is the ultimate literary alchemist […] he transforms base facts into golden understanding.” Your writing style should move from the scientific writing style towards the science writing style. Read popular scientific magazines like “the Scientist”, “the American Scientist”, “Scientific American”, or “New Scientist”. Personally, I read articles in “The Scientist”, and “SciTech daily” – daily online magazines covering both life and engineering sciences.

The same” precision and rigor of science, “Not the same” writing style. 


Note: A list of these differences is proposed in an article written by Dr. Robert Porter, in a 2006 article entitled “Why Academics Have a Hard Time Writing Good Grant Proposals”. I do not quite agree with all of his differences – for example, I disagree that a paper is an individual exercise whereas a grant is a collective one. Nowadays, in 2017, more and more papers are a collective effort, especially in fields like Physics. I had forgotten all about Porter’s 2006 paper when I came across episode 57 (October 2017) of the chatty podcast of Dr. Roger Peng and Dr. Elizabeth Matsui – the effort report that mentioned it. They broach the topic of “not all scientific writing is the same” (move straight to minute 53 of the podcast!). When Elizabeth Matsui became interested in the topic in her capacity as a mentor of young PIs having to write their first grant, she realized that her new PIs came to a grant application with expectations that it would be similar to a scientific paper. After all, that is what they were familiar with. So highlighting the differences was essential.

Author: jllebrun

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

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