Grant Risk and Tennis in Gdansk

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. 


The First Lab Hires



You, the PI, have been granted your wish. Your proposal has been accepted and funding of a new lab is on the way. You are now extending your feelers to find the appropriate people to staff your lab. Time passes, you are interviewing, but only what you consider average scientific talent turns up for the interview. Of course, you can’t wait, AND you want the best. But why would the best take a chance on you, the young and barely known PI? You have a notoriety problem. Since the grant clock is ticking, and you can’t afford to waste time two two now consider possibilities: Do it all yourself at an great cost to you and your family, or  take a chance on untested staff and hire away – you have the money.

The situation is not hypothetical. As I sat in one of the Starbucks hangouts in Singapore, I witnessed the conversation between two PIs, a young one and a veteran. I had arranged the meeting between them. Here is in point form the wisdom that was shared during the meeting by the veteran PI, Dr Judy Sng, senior lecturer at the department of Pharmacology of the NUS School of Medicine:

  • Do not hire without first assessing the skills and attitude. These cannot be assessed during an interview. “I usually do a written test assessment, for example a simple molar calculation, PCR reactions,… I also invite the potential new hire to meet other people in the lab first and get the feedback from them after the candidate leaves. During the visit, I invite the potential candidate for a meal with the rest of the lab. That’s where you can see how candidates behave and interact with fellow members. You can tell if they speak condescendingly to their peers during a simple meal.”
  • Technicians first, Postdoc later, and Students last. “Yes, if you hire technicians to start your lab, the scientific development is slower than if you start hiring postdocs. But not all postdocs like setting up a new lab. Time is precious to them. They join the lab later, perhaps 1-2 years after lab setup. The consequence of starting with technicians is that you have to train the technicians while doing workbench yourself. Older technicians tend to stay with you longer than young ones. Their stability brings much relief when you start up a lab.”
  • Students are both an asset and a liability“They may be the very ones who will join your lab in the future. Bringing them in give you a chance to evaluate them, and see if they will stay for the long haul. On the other hand, students will drain you, your resources, and your staff, particularly those who have thesis to write and need data. Those who just intern do not need to have data. Training any student will cost you, so choose only interns with a potential to become staff.”


Dr Sng also shared other points not directly related to new hires, but they reflect her experience and are certainly worth sharing in this blog. They are about other PIs, family, and teaching duties.

  • Once a PI with a lab, everyone other PI wants you as a collaborator in their grant. Be selfish and work on your project first. You have to be VERY selective and learn to say ‘No, thank you’. But it is an excellent way to build relationships with your peers.”
  • Keep sane, value your family. “You have a child, I have mine too. Papers and grants matter, but kids are growing up fast. Although the days with little children seem never to end, the years actually fly by. It is important to balance your time well and spend time with family.”
  • Teaching takes more time off your already crammed schedule. Envisage teaching at a much later stage, not right away when you create your lab. I only felt comfortable to start technology transfer through teaching in the fifth year of my career. Creating lecture material is hard and takes time.”



Welcome to your Grant book companion

This is the post excerpt.


This blog is a companion to the book, a living book of sorts. The world of grants and crowdfunding never sits still. As we continue to explore and learn, we will share our discoveries in new blog entries that, one day, will augment the next edition of the book. So bookmark this site 

Keep your book URLs updated and don’t be afraid to write the updated ones in the book itself. We have asked our publisher, World Scientific – the publisher for Nobel literature –  to leave ample margins for you to write in. Whenever any URL given in the book changes or disappears, we will inform you and provide a new address as soon as we locate their new location. Alternatively, if the page is still available in the INTERNET ARCHIVES, we will point to it there. Writing in a book is not only making it yours, it also makes it more memorable and actionable. If you are still in doubt, read the paper “The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking”.

If you landed on this page and do not have the book – here is what it contains:


  • Grant Ecosystem:
  • Grant Parts:
    • Title — The Eye Catcher
    • Grant Abstract — The Marketing Pitch
    • Grant Specific Aims — The Work Plan
    • Grant Budget — The Movie Scenario Approach
    • Grant Significance — Unearthing the Value
  • Grant Evaluation:
    • Novelty and Innovation — The Perception of Newness
    • Behind the Scenes — The Reviewing Process
    • Risk Management — The Reality Check
    • Not Granted — How to Deal with Rejection
  • Funding Through Social Media:
    • Crowdfunding Science