Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Grant application post-mortems (again)

Yesterday the Australian Research Council announced which grant applications were successful for funding for next year. So roughly 20 per cent of people were happy and 80 per cent were sad. After the exhilaration or devastation inevitably come the post-mortems, particularly from those who are unsuccessful. We offer each other a multitude of possible reasons for failure or for success....

Professor Z was on the committee and he doesn't like my field.... All they care about is number of publications.... I need to increase my h-index...  They must have liked the bit I wrote about... Clearly they don't like people who work at the interface of chemistry and physics... I need more Nature papers.... I should have promised less... It is because I did not have a big name person on the grant... it is because I am working on such a hot topic.... Obviously they aren't going to fund 2 groups working in my area.... I think Dr. X must have been that negative referee...People think my group has too much money....

The problem with this type of analysis is that it is all speculation. There is usually NO evidence for any of these ideas. Most funding decisions involve a black box. Input is your application which contains tens to fifty pages of information. The output is binary information: yes/no. The input/output correlation has a large random and subjective element to it.

As scientists we should only draw conclusions based on the evidence at hand.

If you did not succeed, don't take it personally and give up. Keep applying. Don't write a totally different application next time just because of some speculative reason for past failures.

If you did succeed, don't let it go to your head. Acknowledge the random element in success.

p.s. This is basically the same post I wrote two years ago at the same time. I just thought it was good for me and my colleagues to be reminded of these issues.


  1. In Uruguay the grant referees return some positive as well negative comments after each round. So even when you are rejected you know which are the weak points that they see.

  2. In Australia applicants also receives copies of the written referee reports but not the associated numerical scores.
    However, one never sees the comments or scores from the committee members who actually make the decision.

    Outcomes are only weakly correlated with the referee reports.
    Hence, these reports provide hints but don't actually tell you why you were successful or unsuccessful.