Raising the risk threshold

Sumo! (Photo by Tim Ellis: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tim_
Sumo! (Photo by Tim Ellis: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tim_ellis)

When you get rejected from a journal or conference, or your grant doesn’t get up, do you retreat to your cave?

Do you have a bit of a tantrum and declare ‘What’s the POINT?’ to innocent passers-by?

I’ve done my fair share of this, and it’s all perfectly normal and healthy for a time. But you have to eventually leave the cave and stop yelling at passersby.

I was talking to a colleague about academic resilience recently – the ability to ‘bounce back’ after papers are heavily criticised or rejected, grants not awarded, or promotions not given.

I’ve seen people respond so differently to these events, though they all start with the same fallen expression.

Some take the entire process as an indictment on their work and position within the field, swear off wasting their time with it all, and disengage.

Others revisit the critique and feedback, and start reworking their submission for the very next round.

Still others revisit the critique, acknowledge that the comments about track-record or scope of project (or whatever) have truth to them, and they take a step back to work up those aspects before investing more time in the application and submission (and waiting…) process.

These responses align with a particular researcher’s level of professional resilience and their ability to absorb setbacks. Someone who is a tenured professor, for example, has more opportunity to choose their response. Those in the research precariat or on fixed-term contracts, however, may not have the luxury of resubmission or reworking; there may be no support to do these things at all.

The way that researchers respond to rejections and unsuccessful applications may also indicate the level of support and encouragement that surrounds them. If research setbacks are read as ‘fails’, then that speaks volumes about the research climate. If research development support is only offered to full-time continuing staff, then everyone else is exiled to the lonely, chafing land of ‘yes, we want you to be successful but not if it means using our resources’.

Think about this: if all you ever see are people applying for grants, finding out the results, then giving up if they didn’t get one, what would you think the grant application cycle consisted of?

Alternatively, what happens if all you ever see are people applying for grants, finding out the results, then working over unsuccessful ones, re-applying to that and other schemes…? And what if all this was undertaken as a collegial, collaborative effort that did not make pariahs of ‘unsuccessfuls’? Are we entering unicorn territory yet?

Every time you submit a grant application, you take a risk. But, these days, you take a risk if you don’t submit one.

Now, more than ever, universities would benefit from creating environments that support and encourage researchers to take risks, and seeing these risks as part of a healthy academic life.

Academic cultures have an embedded reputation for being risk-averse and rather staid. Despite decades of rhetorical flourish, ‘universities’ and ‘innovation’ are not concepts that live practically side by side. Indeed, innovation has become such a hackneyed term that we gave it another name: ‘discovery’ (thanks, @deborahbrian!).

Can academic cultures foster risk-taking?

Lily Kim at FluidicMEMS puts it nicely this way:

People love sexy, unsolved questions, but they usually care only if you find the right answer. If you spend five years proving a molecule doesn’t cure cancer, who cares? All the more embarrassing if you spent a few million dollars along the way. (Risk is scary, even in academic research)

Innovation – or discovery – requires taking a risk.

What’s a sad fact, however, is that few organisations or funding bodies are willing to let researchers take the gamble. They both require and reward steady productivity – the kind of academic background that always has an upward trajectory. Whether to fund or employ someone depends on whether the organisation thinks that person is a ‘good bet’ for producing desired outcomes. Even when outcomes might be negative and useful, it’s a tough sell. While it’s not impossible to find major funding bodies that support this kind of research (e.g. the National Institute of Mental Health in the USA has awarded contracts for Fast-Fail Trials), they’re rare.

Research projects can become mired in risk mitigation and ‘feasibility’. I’m not talking here about ethics issues or experimenting with Very Bad Diseases. So much of the craft of applying for research grants focuses on presenting a seamless narrative about the ‘do-ability’ of the project and the team’s proven track-record (definitely no risk-taking there!). I found myself giving this advice all the time – never lie, but you need to present all this in the best possible light.

Would you ever give an honest take in a grant application on whether a blue-sky project will succeed? Could a justification about how much was learned from a negative project conclusion hold water with funding bodies the next time you submit an application?

Researchers have stated that funding applications are a waste of time (or take up too much time, in any case), so submitting anything other than work that promises transformative, positive results is a risk few, if any, would take.

Even the most apparently innovative types of research that get funded under existing schemes could be viewed as relatively risk-free and ‘good bets’ for the funding organisations. The funding of safe choices begets funding for safe choices, no?

Can a system that’s run by those who’ve benefited so well from it move beyond this? Moreover, does it really want to?


  1. I came to the realisation a long time ago that grant decisions are disconnected from the quality of ideas as expressed in the proposal. I think it was the experience of getting weak proposals funded as much as having strong ones fail that led me to this!
    The solution is to treat decisions as a random outcome and not let them divert you from what you think is important. As you say – easier to do if you are tenured/employed. But this means establishing research cultures in which we value the quality of one another’s work, not conventionally recognised outcomes.


    • Great comment, Rob. Right on the mark re what should be valued, and I think the cultural changes or standards often come from within one’s field/area rather than top-down processes. That said, leading with providing the resources for collegial and collaborative ways of engaging an institution’s researchers can go a long way in establishing a different research culture. Unfortunately, much of what appears to be happening (with grant ‘failures’) tends towards the punitive rather than encouraging.


  2. I’ve found it a big part of the (self) learning process of doing a PhD – learning not to take criticism personally. It’s tough to get rejected – I doubt that will ever go away! But when I started reviewing for journals myself it made me realise that it’s actually a special, collaborative process that ultimately results in better work and better scientists. Hopefully me included!


    • Wow, Kirsty – what a fab, positive comment! I really liked seeing this. There’s a lot of jaundice about journal reviewers, some of it deserved, but I think there are also many generous scholars out there who offer excellent advice for making papers much better. Being able to take criticism and use it to your advantage is a big part of being in the academic game.


  3. I am actually working in an environment now where the failure of a grant application is seen as a reason to send that sucker back out again rather than a personal failure. This has been eye-opening for me and makes me much more strongly inclined to pull together a proposal for something this year. I think this kind of attitude can make a huge difference.


    • That’s great to hear, Mel. There is a lot of negative talk about writing grant applications and I think the pressure that attends to the process creates a lot of resentment. Actually writing a grant application and clarifying project goals/components and team roles is all good, and can boost work on the research itself. Being able to take an application, on which so much time has already been spent, and working it further (possibly for other kinds of schemes) is a good way to ‘use’ it. Abandoning it is where it becomes a total waste of time…unless the project turned out to be fundamentally flawed, etc.


    • Sorry, James, I missed your comment somehow!

      I think many feel they can’t risk everything, and most research is measured risk. It may, in some instances, depend entirely on what one has at stake. Risk can appear in different proportions for those at early or late stages of their research careers.


  4. You are right that rejection is a big problem. And it’s very hard not to be discouraged (or even completely demoralised) by rejection of a grant application. For my money the solution is to submit grant applications in batches so that you never get to your last rejection.


    • Good point – and it would also overcome the belief that grant applications are ‘special cases’ within an academic workload. That is, you submit then wait for results…then possibly re-submit. There needs to be an effective pipeline. Striking the balance between an efficient pipeline and diversified sources of funding can be a great challenge!


      • I agree. I tell people that one solution to that problem is to develop a portfolio of ‘sub-projects’ that you can then combine in different ways to produce a range of projects.


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