If grant selection were random, could you tell?

(This post is based on an excerpt from one of the “Tips for Managers” sections in  Win More Grants eBook now available on Amazon and iBooks.)


The randomness of grant success is potentially a very touchy subject given that academia typically rewards those staff who bring in lots of grant funding by giving them promotion. W. Edwards Demming wrote substantially on this topic and specifically in his classic book, Out of the Crisis.  In it he warns of the problems associated with merit systems that are simply lotteries. Here is an extract, where he quotes from The Face of Battle, by John Keegan.

As to the influence and genius of great generals – there is a story that Enrico Fermi once asked General Leslie Groves how many generals might be called ‘great’. Groves said about three out of every 100. Fermi asked how a general qualified for the adjective and Groves replied that any general who had won five major battles in a row might safely be called great. This was in the middle of World War II. Well, then, said Fermi, considering that the opposing forces in most theatres of operation are roughly equal, the odds are one of two that a general will win a battle, one of four that he will win two battles in a row, one of eight for three, one of sixteen for four, one of thirty-two for five. “So, you are right, General, about three out of every 100. Mathematical probability, not genius”.

We can apply the same logic to grant applications. Let us consider thirty equally clever, equally qualified, equally creative academics and ask them to apply for a grant-funding round that has a success rate of one in five (20%) that is offered once a year.  After five years, that is five applications each, we would actually expect one third not to have had a grant awarded. That is, ten out the thirty would still not have had a successful grant application, even after five applications. In a competitive academic environment this would seem disheartening and entirely depressing to the individual and their self-esteem. On top of that, a typical management regime would consider this to be underperformance and they certainly wouldn’t be looking at these individuals for promotion. Instead, management will be considering putting forward for promotion the two staff members that managed to get three or more grants, and perhaps thinking about it for the six who won two of the five. This is a merit system that works on a lottery.

Of course, this is contentious and perhaps it is not quite as simple as that, but it is certainly worth discussion. Managers and senior staff will tend to disagree wholeheartedly with the notion, but that is to be expected – they will not want to acknowledge any flaw in a system in which they have been rewarded on their “merit”. And while people who are frustrated by their lack of success will find solace in such mathematics, they shouldn’t use this as an excuse not to look for possible other reasons why they are not being successful.

But here is one final thought. There is no evidence that quality is the determinant of grant success (that is not to say it is not, simply that there is no evidence that it is) but there is evidence that track record (i.e. previous success) is correlated with success. Early winners of grants (by luck) are more likely to win subsequent grants, and whether by luck or not, they have set themselves on a good career path.

So, as managers, what should you take from this? Firstly, don’t be fooled by the statistics of grant success. Staff who win more grants are not necessarily producing work of any better quality than those who don’t. Secondly, nothing succeeds like success. If you put a great deal of time and effort into supporting staff onto the first rung of the “winning” ladder, this is likely to be the most effective way of improving their chances of further success.

(Read more, buy the eBook:  Win More Grants.)