Updated: Dec 12, 2018
One of the most common complaints about grant funding is the fickleness of peer review.
Not only can you get completely divergent reviews, you can re-submit previously rejected grants that received favourable reviews and still fall outside the payline despite a better CV and track record.
On the surface these inconsistencies make no sense. But it is only confusing because we expect people to read our grants with their rational brain and make decisions based on logic and facts. Unfortunately that is not what usually happens and here is why.
The human brain has three evolutionary layers. The oldest - the reptilian or primal brain - controls our innate and automatic responses for self-preservation. It helps us avoid pain, flee when there is danger, fight when there is nowhere else to run, and to reproduce.
We might not be living in the same world as primitive man but these instincts are hardwired. This means that your reviewer’s brain will ALWAYS be on the lookout for anything incoming that have survival implications.
This is a double-edged sword for a grant writer.
On one hand, because the primal brain is rigid and compulsive, it is predictable. Learn how to articulate the implications of your research for our species and you’ll catch your reviewer’s attention every time.
On the other hand, if you trigger the ‘null’ response, or the fear response, your grant will be be sunk no matter what facts or logic you present.
The following are three common ways people negatively engage their reviewer’s primal brain without ever realising.
Boring research. If your research is incremental it will not register as having any major implications. This is the kiss of death because reviewers will toss it away at the triage stage often with no feedback.
Controversial. Whilst being incremental is a risk, being controversial is also dangerous - especially if you’re seen to be out to destroy other people’s careers.
Sloppiness. This spells danger because if you are careless with facts and can’t even cross a t or dot an i, how can we trust with you with millions of dollars of scarce funding?
One of the most important skills to develop as a grant writer is knowing how to talk to your reviewer’s primal brain. Until you master this facet of grant communication your chances of talking to their rational scientific neocortex will be virtually zero.
Dr Shieak Tzeng, R&D Canvas