Publication bias. Grant bias.

All academics writing grants will tell you this: if you want to be successful when applying to a thematic research grant call, you must tick all of the boxes.

Now, imagine that you are a physicist, expert in quantum mechanics. A major funding opportunity arises, exactly matching your interest and track record. That is great news. Obviously you will apply. One difficulty however is that, amongst other things, the call specifies that your project should lead to the “development of highly sensitive approaches enabling the simultaneous determination of the exact position and momentum of a particle“.

At that point, you have three options. The first one is to write a super sexy proposal that somehow ignores the Heisenberg principle. The second option is to write a proposal that addresses the other priorities, but fudges around that particular specification, maybe even alluding to the Heisenberg principle. The third option is to renounce.

The first option is dishonest. The second option is more honest, but, in effect, is not so different from the third: your project is unlikely to get funded if you do not stick to the requirements of the call, as noted above. The third option demonstrates integrity but won’t help you with your career, nor, more importantly with doing any research at all.

And so, you have it. Thematic grant calls that ask for impossible achievements, nourished by publication bias and hype, further contribute to distortion of science.

OK, I’ll confess: I have had a major grant rejected. It was a beautiful EU project (whether BREXIT is partly to blame I do not know). It was not about quantum mechanics but about cell tracking. The call asked for simultaneous “detection of single cells and cell morphologies” and “non-invasive whole body monitoring (magnetic, optical) in large animals” which is just about as impossible as breaking the Heisenberg principle, albeit for less fundamental reasons. We went for option 2. We had a super strong team.


  1. Sorry to hear about your rejection. It is hard and it doesn’t seem to get better any time soon. I guess it only goes to show that people drafting the calls aren’t scientists and when you go and tell them that violating the H.U.P. is impossible they will just reply that splitting an atom was once thought impossible.
    I remember a proposal at the beginning of my career for young scientists which was rejected on the grounds of me not having enough experience graduating students. That was a shocker!


  2. I wonder if academic science is oversaturated. It is a huge enterprise in manpower. Maybe we are at diminishing returns. Perhaps less government $$ would not really result in much of a difference in results.


  3. We recently bailed from a cancer-biology solicitation, the PI having concluded that we had the three choices you describe above. In particular, they wanted to know why a small proportion of patients with the pre-cancer condition we study get cancer while the rest do not, but they were notably hostile to any analysis of data from individuals who did not get cancer. This isn’t quite Heisenberg but it’s close.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.