“Grantsmanship”: The Death of Innovation

I have had the opportunity to participate in several committees that review grants for large surgical societies.  During these sessions, typically two reviewers review each grant in depth and then present a summary to the rest of the committee.  Those reviewers give the grant a score from 1-10, with 1 being a grant that should definitely be funded and 10 being a grant that should not be funded.  The rest of the committee listens to the summary by the reviewers and then gives their own scores.  During one of these discussions, the idea of “grantsmanship” was brought up by one of the other committee members.  The idea of “grantsmanship” is that the grant writer has done an excellent job in clearly explaining the reason for the study and the research strategy, and has carefully crafted the grant to have the best chance of successful funding.  The committee member was “voting outside the range” (giving a score higher or lower than the range set by the two in-depth reviewers) because he/she felt that the grant writer had done such an amazing job of “grantsmanship” that a higher score was deserved.

Without going into too much detail about the particular grant that was being discussed, I personally felt that the grant would do very little to change the practice of hand surgery and lacked any innovation whatsoever.  However, it was written by an experienced grant writer who understood “grantsmanship” and how to sway reviewers to fund his/her particular grant.  Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with writing a clear grant that checks all the boxes in the application process. But it is my sincere belief that we should be funding innovative studies that have the potential to change the way we practice hand surgery.  I was shocked that we were rewarding the ability to write a nice grant over the potential to impact the field of hand surgery.  Certainly an argument can be made that the funding level available with society grants may not fully fund paradigm shifting research; however, giving innovative researchers an opportunity to get started may be all they need to succeed.

In full disclosure, I was a recipient last year of an ASSH Clinical Grant.  I was not a member of the committee that reviewed the grant and I am not aware of what was said in that meeting room.  I doubt that my “grantsmanship” is what led to my award, as I am a young clinician scientist with very little experience in grant writing.  I am thankful that the committee saw the potential of the proposed project and the need for start-up funding for a young researcher.  It is my hope that our hand societies continue to fund innovative research even if the “grantsmanship” is sub-par.  We can choose to keep hitting singles with “safe” grants that look nice on paper or swing for the fence to hit the potential home run in upper extremity research.  Sometimes you have to be willing to strikeout every so often to get the big reward.

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John Fowler is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Orthopaedics at the University of Pittsburgh. He completed his residency in Orthopaedics at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia and a hand fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh. His research passion is the use of musculoskeletal ultrasound. When not working, he tries to spend as much time as possible with his amazing wife Amy and three children: Alexis, Kyle and Eliana.

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  1. Brent Graham

    I definitely agree that a place has to be reserved at the grant funding table for those with innovative ideas that are somewhat off the beaten track but I would take the view that those individuals should seek the advice of a mentor with experience in writing grants if, for no other reason, they don’t want their idea to be lost in translation, as it were. Most granting agencies have far less money than would be ideal so their responsibility is to award money to good ideas but if those ideas are not clearly expressed, with a consideration of what could go wrong during the investigation and how that would be addressed, the risk is funding projects that fail because of poor planning. “Grantmanship” is more than just being a good writer — it is a demonstration of preparedness!

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