Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Grant writing advice

In general, grants proposals that include multiple methods (e.g., fMRI & lesion), put you at a disadvantage compared to single-method proposals.  I've submitted three grant proposals now that have included both fMRI and lesion-symptom mapping methods, and reviewed a bunch of similar combo-method proposals  from other investigators, and my experience is that they are much less likely to get favorably reviewed.

The funny thing is, there is typically unanimous reviewer praise for the multi-method approach, but then most of the criticism centers on how the multi-method approach doesn't work.  The reason why multi-method proposals are more problematic in the review process is obvious: you have to get favorable evaluations of each method separately, and then get a positive opinion of the relation between the two.  Triple jeopardy.  You are much better off putting the different methods into separate proposals, and then pointing out in each separate proposal that you are approaching the same issues using a different methodological approach "under a different funding mechanism." This way, reviewers can praise you for your methodological diversity, but no one gets to ding you for how you put them together. 

Of course, one might argue that if the various methods are integrated in a thoughtful, scientifically justifiable way, it shouldn't matter.  In theory, yes.  But as we all know, reviewers often disagree about the best way to do things.  By including more things to potentially disagree about, you open yourself to more criticism.  And these days, getting dinged on just about any one thing by any one reviewer is enough to kill your score.

This is a sad state of affairs because investigators who try to do more, end up getting penalized. I personally have had modest suggest with multi-method proposals, getting two funded, although it took until the third submission in both cases and much argumentation about how to integrate across methods. But my experience in this last round of submissions has sharpened my thoughts on the proposal approach. I submitted two grant proposals, one that was straight fMRI and one that was combined fMRI and lesion. The straight fMRI proposal fared reasonably well on its first round of reviews, whereas the the combo proposal is in danger of failing on its third time around, in part because of questions about cross-method integration.  In the future, I'm going to continue to do multi-method research, but I'm going stick to single method proposals.  Oh, the games we have to play...

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