Assembled Chaos

Working together to accelerate innovation in the life sciences

Warning! Research proposal preparation can harm your research.

Warning! Research proposal preparation can harm your research.

What would you rather do: analyze some really interesting data that shows unexpected results, or merge 5 versions of a 115 page branched document?

This, of course, is a rhetorical question, of course.

If you spend 2 months writing a proposal and it is rejected, your research suffered.

For EU projects most Coordinators spend a minimum of 48 working days to organize and submit a proposal. A failed proposal translates into almost 2.5 months of research time lost.

You might argue, that research proposal preparation is a part of research. It helps you to plan and organize your research. It forms collaborations and it can be recycled for the next call. In fact most NIH grants are only funded after 3 submissions.

Is that efficient?

At a minimum you could take comfort in the fact the text of your failed proposal is a detailed plan for future research. That is worth something. Right?

How does science advance?

Does detailed rigid planning advance science? Or, is it the pursuit of serendipitous findings?

Sorry, another rhetorical question.

So, researchers should be left out to play in the lab to see what happens? No, not really.

There needs to be a balance between structure and flexibility. Structure helps assure you do not spend millions purifying gnat wings. Flexibility enables you to capitalize on ‘Eureka!’ moments.

How do you strike that balance?


By their very nature collaborations provide structure. Collaborating is about agreeing. You have to agree on what topic to work on. You have to agree on who is going to do what. You also have to agree on what to do next.

Having to agree with your collaborators drives structure. To agree you have to get together either virtually or physically. Having to meet also motivates. There is no better inspiration than knowing that you have to present something at the next meeting or teleconference.

One gathering is never enough. Collaboration requires a series of meetings. For any given discussion there are always open questions and more information needed. Time is also important. Time to process what was discussed. Time to come to further agreements with your collaborators. Collaborative projects in this way are intrinsically structured and intrinsically iterative. This is perhaps their key strength.

Software development projects in the 90’s often failed. The whole industry of software development was under duress. To address this high rate of failure a group of developers came up with the ‘Agile Manifesto‘ which defined a new way of managing projects.

One of the key aspects of Agile Project Management is that it is iterative. You meet decide what you are going to work on for the next period of time then meet at the end of that period, report what you have done and then decide what you are going to work on for the next period and so on.

Research, especially collaborative research is similar. You conduct some experiments, analyze the results then present them to a group and decide what should be done next.

Good scientific collaborations, like Agile, are iterative and flexible and allow work to flow in whatever direction produces the best results.  There are also many other benefits of collaborating.

So, in reality you do not need a detailed sets of plans.  You need a well functioning collaboration.  ‘Okay’ you say ‘lets go forth and collaborate’. There is, however, a problem.

Collaborations without funding rarely ever work.  It circles back around. No matter what, you cannot escape having to write research proposals. Research proposal preparation is a necessary evil.

Is the pressure cooker of meeting a proposal deadline good for collaboration?

There are many risks you take when preparing a research proposal.

  1. Collaborators that don’t deliver on time
  2. Partners that complain that they are not getting enough resource
  3. Others who steal your ideas
  4. Collossal screwups – i.e. not getting the right form in on time
  5. Angering someone because you did not include them

These are 5 good reasons to throw you hands up in the air, disavow research funding and declare that you are going to ‘Do only what matters’ – your research.  A laudable manifesto, but before you pin it to the ceiling above your bed, there is one little question.

Can you really do research on your own without funding?

As our knowledge expands it becomes increasingly difficult to perform research in isolation. It was fine for Benjamin Franklin on his own to tie a key to a kite and go fly it in a thunderstorm. Now such research is roundly uninteresting.

The only research that moves the field comes when you embrace complexity. To do so you need multiple experts in multiple fields.

As our science gets complex, our way of working also needs to become complex. The syllogism that follows is that research proposal preparation also needs to be complex. ‘Nah!’ you say, its about writing the best possible proposal.

Where do the best research proposals come from?

Does one researcher banging away at the word processor on his or her own produce the best proposal?


At least the first version. Getting someone to write this first version is a challenge. There is a natural tendency to resist. After all, once you produce that first version your are open to criticism. So, you delay and do bits and pieces, or spend your time looking up references. The result?

‘Last minutism’. When you get down to the last minute, or more accurately that last few days, the only feasible solution is to work on the proposal by yourself, or with a small group.  Is that efficient?

On the face of it, it is. With a small group there is less concern about merging branched documents and the document has one style of writing. In terms of end results, it is not.

What if, while you are procrastinating on your first version, your competitors are busy having discussions amongst a diverse group of experts?

They will identify more risks, generate more detail about what needs to be done, and they will have more novel ideas. From the reviewer’s perspective your competitor’s proposal looks like it comes from a group that has all the angles covered. Your proposal, while full of good ideas and plans, can never look as well rounded and complete as one produced by a the distributed thinking of a group of experts.

They win and your heroic efforts are wasted. Again, you are left with a set of detailed plans for your future research with no funding.

The best research proposals are prepared iteratively by a well-organized group of diverse experts. However, working collaboratively does introduce a degree of complexity.

What is the best way to deal with complexity?

That is not a rhetorical question. The answer is a metaphorical one -  hit it with a ‘simple stick’.

A simple stick is what Ken Segall describes what Steve Jobs use to ‘wield’ at Apple. When someone would propose a complex solution, Steve Jobs would get animated and go on a tirade about making it simple.

5 simple rules that will diminish the impact of proposal preparation on your research.

  1. Start with a simple, strong, shared vision.
  2. Do the hardest part first – project plan and budget
  3. Begin working on sections not the whole document
  4. Use technology to keep it all organized – task management, spreadsheets, online platforms
  5. Iterate – get concepts, outlines, and first versions out quickly
  6. Have someone facilitate the whole process

The first point is the most important. People are much more willing to pitch in when they see a project that is worth doing. All too often the real value of the project is lost in dense obfuscated text. You need a short, clear and simple vision of your project.

This is essentially the first iteration.

The other 5 rules are about efficiency. You should not have to spend all your time writing research proposals. Definitely at the expense of what matters most – your research.

Face it. As a researcher you have to deal with the funding-publication-funding hamster wheel. You can try to ignore it and continue to struggle.

Or, you can make the process as efficient as possible through proactive organization and leveraging the power of distributed thinking of a group of experts.