Grants: The Pros and Cons of Telling the World You Just Got Some Money

9 May 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

If someone just gave me a bunch of money, would you be interested? Probably not. That’s because when one person gets money it is not inherently interesting to anyone else. But when that money comes in the form of a research grant, there’s often a lot of pressure on public information officers (PIOs) to stir up interest among reporters.

I am a PIO, and I struggled with this particular task for a few years before realizing that, sometimes, promoting grant awards can actually have very real benefits for the researchers and the work they do. Let’s discuss.

Why Writing About Grants Is Hard

Writing about grants is hard because the researchers who received the grant haven’t actually done anything yet. Instead, the researchers have identified a problem or challenge and made a convincing argument that they might be able to shed some light on it. In fact, the argument was apparently so convincing that someone was willing to give them money to do the relevant work.

So what.

I attended a conference of higher ed PIOs five years ago, where attendees had the opportunity to grill a panel of three higher ed reporters about what they would and wouldn’t be interested in writing about. Someone asked how large a grant had to be in order to catch their attention. One reporter said $25 million, one reporter said $50 million, and one reporter said there was no grant big enough to get his interest. (As I said, getting money is not inherently interesting.)

And if higher ed reporters aren’t particularly interested in writing about grants, you can bet that science reporters aren’t interested. Instead, science reporters are interested in the research findings that stem from the work that grants support. And those findings usually don’t appear until years after the grant is awarded.

To be clear, everyone acknowledges that research grants are important. But being important is not the same as being interesting. For example, funding for cancer research is enormously important. But lots of researchers at lots of institutions get lots of grants to study various aspects of cancer. No one is going to write about every single one of those grants, because the grants aren’t interesting. The grant will get written about when, and if, it leads to interesting results.

Why Writing About Grants Can Actually Be Useful

When I started working as a PIO, I thought writing about grants was more or less a waste of time. However, if the grant was big enough, I had to write about it anyway. It was while writing about one of these large grants that I learned that there can be very practical benefits for the researchers involved.

I had written about a reasonably significant research grant and, while most reporters had ignored it, a few specialized outlets did pick up the story. It was through one of those news outlets that another researcher (I’ll call him “Dr. Z”) read about the work that “my” researcher (“Dr. A”) would be doing with his new grant. Dr. Z was working on a similar – but different – research project on the other side of the country. Dr. Z contacted Dr. A and offered to share his data set. His large, robust data set. Dr. A agreed immediately, and offered to return the favor once he’d compiled his own data set. Dr. A was off to a running start on his research project, and both researchers would ultimately get larger data sets than they anticipated. The real winner, of course, was the research itself – a more robust data set is a good thing.

Dr. A called to tell me his exciting news (and he was excited), because he was sure that he wouldn’t have gotten the data set if we hadn’t decided to promote his grant – for the simple reason that Dr. Z’s research was just different enough from Dr. A’s that they would probably not have met under other circumstances – and certainly not in such a timely way for Dr. A’s work.

It dawned on me that this was a great reason to promote grants – to raise awareness in the research community of emerging research initiatives, thus creating opportunities for formal or informal collaboration.

That made sense to me, and I’ve since become a much more enthusiastic promoter of grant awards.

How To Promote Grants (or, at least, how I promote grants)

Pitches about grants will put most reporters to sleep. (Photo credit: cricava/stock.xchng)

Enthusiastic, but not unrealistic. I still don’t expect most reporters to get excited about a researcher getting a grant. I only pitch stories about grants to reporters who cover extremely specific, relevant beats. For example, if a researcher gets a grant to study multi-hop wireless networks, I would only pitch the story to reporters who I know cover multi-hop wireless networks – I wouldn’t pitch it to reporters who cover a broad technology beat, or even to reporters who cover networks generally.

And when I write about grants, I try to make it as little about the grant as possible. You can (and should, in my opinion) dispense with the grant in one or two brief sentences, saying how much the grant is for, how long it’s for and where the funding came from.

Instead, when I write about grants, I try to write about the problem or challenge that the researcher will use the grant funding to address. Problems and challenges are usually interesting. Who is affected by them? Why are they important?

I also try to write about what makes the researcher’s approach interesting. Are they taking a crazy new angle that nobody thinks will work? How does their approach fit into the existing body of knowledge about the subject? What are the range of possible outcomes? For example, even if an experiment fails, you can still learn a lot from it. What can we learn if it fails? What if it succeeds?

I don’t mean to get bogged down in hypothetical questions – that’s a dangerous game. But if you can say that a research project will tell us whether a specific approach is a dead-end or worth pursuing, that may be worthwhile.

So, PIOs, go ahead and work to promote research grant awards. But be smart about it: write about why the problem matters (since there are no findings yet); only pitch it to people you think might actually be interested (this, of course, is always good advice); and don’t get your feelings hurt if nobody writes about it. It’s only money.


13 Responses to “Grants: The Pros and Cons of Telling the World You Just Got Some Money”

  1. Liz O'Connell Reply | Permalink

    Nicely said. Who's reading or watching (FrontierSscientists makes videos) matters but understanding how research evolves can be enlightening. I speak from experience after admin stinting in a Stanford research lab--my Catholic education was light on science so at work I came to love science. In video interviews with scientists for our stories, I've asked and not asked yet received good explanations of the thought process from research idea to successful funding process. After reading your blog, I'm thinking short videos of the process might be beneficial or inspiring to the researcher and the general public. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Richard Reply | Permalink

    "If someone just gave me a bunch of money, would you be interested? Probably not. That’s because when one person gets money it is not inherently interesting to anyone else." - Follow lotteries much?

  3. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    I'd wager that very few people could name the winner of the last big lottery in their area. Or even what state the winner lived in. Lotteries themselves rarely get much (if any) news coverage. Two exceptions: the occasional "Someone won the lottery and then their lives were ruined" story -- which is more about a "riches to rags" story than a "someone got money" story; and one story I saw about a workplace that pooled their entries and won the lottery, which made the news because the winners shared the winnings even with co-workers who didn't contribute to the pool.

  4. Jacquelyn Gill Reply | Permalink

    "Writing about grants is hard because the researchers who received the grant haven’t actually done anything yet."

    That's not exactly true. There's usually quite a lot of foundational research that goes into grant writing (including the relevant prior publications), and grants are much more likely to be funded if you have preliminary data. The joke I've heard is that you get funded by NSF for the work you've already done. While the final picture may be far from complete, I think it can be worth emphasizing the research that's been done that the new grant builds on, and the interesting questions and approaches (not to mention the training opportunities for students).

    I also think reporting on grants can be a great way to shed light on the active process of science, without having to wait for results. Given that the general public often has huge misconceptions about the funding process, there's a great opportunity here to do something different in science reporting while still having an impact.

  5. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    But if the foundational work is worth writing about, it stands on its own -- you're writing about that work, not about the grant. And, frankly, I wouldn't write about the foundational work unless it had been peer-reviewed -- in which case the news hook is the publication (or publications), rather than the grant. (I know peer review isn't perfect, but it is at least some sort of safeguard against promoting pseudoscience.)

    That said, I agree that it is important to report findings in context -- stressing that science is a process. I usually try to discuss (at least briefly) future directions, etc.

  6. Kim Reply | Permalink

    Hi Matt-
    You make some fair comments, but let me ask, would you only write about a NASA program after launch? Or is the announcement of the initiative that's been green-lighted a story in itself? Grant awards (let's highlight the word 'award') is heavily based on past accomplishments plus a new initiative. Most of a written grant is about problems and challenges and what sort of evidence opened up a new question. There's also a big emphasis on broad significance. Nobody (but the higher ups) care about the dollar amount.

    Writing about a grant should be a little like writing about a mystery that has yet to be solved, what's more intriguing than that? All of this is predicated on the questions being posed having intrinsic interest, same as with any research story.

    Some private foundation awards are also as much an award in the sense of a prize as an award for funding.

  7. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    NASA certainly does make headlines. And many NASA programs are written about long before they become reality -- including many programs that were later zeroed out in bad budget years. But while there are certainly exceptions, I think you're missing the bigger point of my post.

    This post isn't all about my opinion of promoting grant awards. It's about the reality of getting coverage for grant awards and how they're viewed by reporters. I could say that a grant is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but odds are excellent that no reporter will want to write about it. That doesn't belittle the accomplishment of receiving a grant, it just means that it's probably not news until the work has made headway. That's the reality. Most grant awards are not for projects that will be launched into space or have similarly eye-catching news hooks -- those grants will receive attention if and when they result in newsworthy findings.

    I also wrote about some of the reasons that promoting a grant can have very real benefits for the research itself (see paragraphs 8-12). And I urged PIOs "to write about the problem or challenge that the researcher will use the grant funding to address" and to write about how the grant recipient's "approach fit[s] into the existing body of knowledge about the subject" -- both of which are points you made in your comment (thanks for agreeing with me!).

    I'm sorry if you think I don't care about grants -- I do. But I'm also in the business of helping people communicate about science effectively, and that means accepting the fact that being important is not always the same as being interesting, from a news perspective. My institution gets lots and lots and lots of worthwhile grants every year, to advance science in a wide variety of fields. If we tried to promote all of those grants, we would be pitching reporters a grant story on an almost daily basis. And if we did that, reporters would quickly stop reading our emails.

  8. Ed Yong Reply | Permalink

    I loathe grant stories. Here's why: When I was at Cancer Research UK, we occasionally had to deal with the fallout of universities releasing PR about new grants that led to scare stories. Because:

    "Link between X and Y cancer to be probed by researchers from Z in a new £A million project"

    inevitably becomes

    "Fears that X causes Y."

    Because, so the logic goes, if there wasn't good reason to think that X causes Y, why would Z be getting £A to study it? There MUST be something there.

    Now, admittedly, this is a specific problem that doesn't apply to all grant releases, but it's one that particularly grates.

  9. Deborah Blum Reply | Permalink

    I don't find individual grant stories all that interesting unless there's some unusual source of funding or some other interesting context. I do like to search the grants database at NIH for patterns occasionally - trends in funding. Or if I'm tracking a particular funded study and want to know what else is being supported.

  10. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    Thanks for the input, all. And, Ed, that specific problem isn't one I'd thought of -- but I can see how it would be headache-inducing.

  11. Ivan Oransky Reply | Permalink

    There are lots of reasons to send out a press release about a grant, and only one of them is to get press coverage. I can't think of a reason I'd ever cover someone getting a grant, but the releases get posted to places that people see without any reporter taking an interest. I don't see any harm in any of that, But as a story, getting a grant should, and generally does, rank pretty low on the priority list. As others have noted, there may be stories to be had in sifting through grant trends, but that's different.

    And of course I'd expect anyone who put out a release about a scientist getting a grant to put out a release if that scientist had to retract a paper based on it, or worse, was found guilty of misconduct while using its funds. I can certainly be predictable, can't I?

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