Mad Men and scientific grant writing

4 minute read

You can understand a lot about academic research by watching Mad Men. The series is about advertising executives in the 1960s, including “creatives” who work to develop advertising campaigns, and “accounts men” who wine and dine executives from big companies to land accounts. They share a penchant for womanizing and alcohol, but otherwise the two are very different types of people with different skillsets. Accounts men work to get company reps into the conference room, where creatives do their magic to close the deal by showing how they would take the company to marketing nirvana.

Despite their differences they do have similarities. Both jobs depend on an intricate dance of style and perception of the clients’ desires—neither of which can be easily predicted. Don Draper may have the most beautiful idea ever, but the client may never be happy unless her dog is in the ad. The only objective way to tell if the agency is doing a good job is by adding up the billings. Each needs the skills of the other to make money and everyone celebrates together when they sign a big account.

What does this have to do with academics?

From Dorothy Bishop: “The big grants, the big papers: are we missing something?”

For many universities, a high proportion of their core funding is linked to research grants. Consequently, we now have the weird situation whereby a researcher who achieves important results with little or no funding is valued less than someone who receives a huge grant but fails to do anything sensible with it. It should be a matter of concern to funders that in contemporary academic life, people are encouraged to write expensive grant proposals rather than thrifty ones.

Faced with the difficulty of judging scientists on their creativity of their ideas, universities and institutions fall back on what can be most easily quantified: money.

If you’re a beancounter, there appears to be some sense to an objective scale based on money. Sure, universities want to advance science. But science today is highly distributed and collaborative, with most scientists working on small parts of big problems. Major breakthroughs that fundamentally change our way of doing science are rare and usually involve a community of people who challenge each other to work in a new way, not a single maverick lab. The major breakthroughs are not generally obvious at the time they happen, which means that university hiring ends up chasing fads that derive from advances that came years before.

By contrast, it takes minutes to determine if money has actually been transferred to the university’s accounts. When it comes to quantifying results, money speaks for itself.

Grantwriting is necessary to today’s scientific process. A strong grant application shows clearly how scientific results can be obtained, matching the likely outcomes to budget requirements and personnel. This skill can make an institution run better by fostering collaboration and collective problem-solving, while establishing connections to funders and the public. These are tremendously important for science.

But grantwriting and creative work in science are two very different skillsets. And in these days when only 5% of grant applications may be funded, even the good grantwriters will strike out at most of their times at the plate. A university may as well try to run Sterling Cooper without Don Draper and Peggy Olson. They may keep the clients happy for a while, but before long the lack of inspiration will grind the place to a halt.

Probably the most frustrating thing about grant-obsessed administrators is that grantwriting is most effective when the creative work has already been done. Nothing convinces like good pilot data, results already in hand. Many experienced grantees will describe how they use work already done to apply for a grant, which will fund the work needed to get their next grant, and so on. Completely lost is the idea of creativity, except the creativity needed to write the next grant application. In science, that’s the opposite of what we want.

How can we ensure that more creativity gets funded?

Simply, we have to begin to expect failure. Ideas are like mutations: Most of them will be bad or neutral, and only a few good. A grant panel of experts may be able to eliminate many of the bad ideas. But we know from the history of science that most good ideas are not obvious at the time, and that it’s hard to distinguish the neutral ones from the good ones. We should be funding science where the outcomes cannot be easily predicted, putting ideas to the test. To do that we need to accept that a high proportion of these ideas will be dead ends. But we need to fund a broader range of creative people to increase the chance of finding a really good idea, the kind that can give rise to new fields of inquiry.

That’s what advertisers ultimately do as well: Cast the net wide, knowing that most people who see an ad will not immediately become customers. Creativity can shave a few percent off the odds of failure, and that’s worth rewarding.