I tend to think of my lab as a small business, with me as the entrepreneur at the helm – although I am probably closer to Del Boy Trotter than to Mark Zuckerberg.
This is just one of the many tortuous analogies I use to make sense of an academic career (because, let’s face it, academia doesn’t make much sense). Grants are the sales pitch that shore up the lab’s cashflow, and while I am not advocating passing off Peckham’s tap water as spring water, even genuine spring water won’t sell unless you market it properly.
As such, your grant applications have to target the customer. What complicates matters is that there are at least two different customers, with different requirements. Your sales pitch needs to be detailed enough to convince peer reviewers that you know what you are doing, but it also needs to be exciting enough to convince the panel to select your application ahead of other, equally scientifically valid, proposals. Here the lay summary is key. Sure, it is mislabelled: no lay person is ever going to read it. But it is your chance to sell the project to the panel.
Within a small business model, you also need to consider the cost of application. Our most precious commodity is our time. The endless hours absorbed by grant writing could be spent teaching, researching, writing papers or even having a life outside work!
The decision regarding whether to bear that opportunity cost should be taken in light of consideration of the chance of success versus the return if funded. Small grants with long application forms and a low hit rate should be ignored, no matter how desperate you get. I keep a tally of grants I have applied for, recording the grant value and the time invested. This has helped me to concentrate my efforts.
The sales pitch mentality stretches to how I review grants. I want to know what I am buying. First and foremost, I want to see a hypothesis. Not buried on page seven after the justification of resources, but on page one, line one, in bold. I then want my pulse quickened with a unique selling point. Why does the work need to be done? If it is a fundamental question, why does it need answering? If it is translational, how will answering it make the world a better place?
If that isn’t clear, no amount of technical competence will save you. So get out there and get selling!

This was first published in the Times Higher Education