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Or Just Get a Powerball Ticket

A duo from the University of Queensland and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has conducted a survey to gauge the costs and benefits of grant writing. As the two report in PLOS One, they asked 113 astronomers and 82 psychologists seeking support from the National Institutes of Health, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Science Foundation about their grant-writing history.

From this, Ted von Hippel and Courtney von Hippel found that the average grant proposal took 116 principal investigator hours and 55 chief investigator hours to write. However, they noted that the time spent on a proposal was not correlated with whether it was funded. At the same time, though, the more grants someone wrote, the more that person was funded.

"So it looks as though the winning strategy is just to send off as many grant applications as possible, not spending too long on each one," writes the blogger Neuroskeptic. "Which fits with the 'lottery theory' of grants ­— after all, the only way to increase your chances of winning the lottery is to buy lots of tickets."

The von Hippels also report that funding rates hovering around 20 percent means that about half of researchers won't get funded, even after applying for three years in a row. Because of this, they suggest that researchers avoid applying to programs with a funding rate of 20 percent or below, "unless they are confident that their research program has a greater-than-baseline chance of success or they are willing to write two or more proposals per year."

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