Value comes from solving problems not ‘genearting knowledge’

The central purpose of science is to explain. So I was not surprised by some kickback when I recently suggested to a group of scientists that seeking 'understanding' by itself is a weak premise for a research grant. Let us explore why.

Unlike an academic publication, a grant is ultimately about the distribution of money. As there is never enough money to go around, decisions require someone to make value judgments about your proposal. Simply put, the more valuable your research is perceived, the more likely you are to get funded.

Knowledge is the bedrock of modern civilizations, so our ability to create understanding is crucial. But it is difficult to compare the value of knowledge in one area vs. another because 'value' is inherently subjective.

So the job of a grant writer is to highlight the importance of the knowledge that your research will uncover. It so happens that solving a problem is an accessible way of contextualising the value of knowledge because problems are easier to conceptualise and quantify. It is also why the 'problem-solution-impact' path is an essential contrast agent for effective grantsmanship.

That said, just knowing about the aforementioned is not enough. At least two additional elements are required.

First is that the problem has to be something that a critical mass of people care about. If nobody on earth cares about it other than yourself, then it will be challenging to get buy-in. So ask yourself, "what does my community care about"? What are the REAL problems that if I solved, would have a massive impact on the world?

The second is the deliberate practice of expressing your ideas as a short series of problems and solutions. How much practice? I don't know the exact answer, but research into the way people become experts by K. Anders Ericsson and Malcolm Gladwell suggests 10,000 hours. Better get cracking.

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