Timelines in grant proposals are useless. Here’s how I put them to use.

Image: A completely useless Gantt-chart timeline, from a grant proposal I submitted before my recent epiphany

I’ve written a lot of grant proposals in my 30 years as a scientist, and that means I’ve jumped through a lot of hoops.  I can wring the most text from a specification of font size and margins.  I can describe a piece of research as simultaneously novel enough to be exciting and yet, at the same time, pedestrian enough to be risk-free.  I can justify the crap out of a budget.  But one hoop nettles me more than any other hoop held before me: the grant timeline (sometimes called “schedule of proposed activities”).

I can jump through that hoop, of course – I can make a Gantt chart with a veneer of plausibility.  But I don’t see the point.  When I review a grant, I pretty much ignore the proposed timeline.  I don’t understand what, if anything, it tells me – what, if anything, is underneath that veneer of plausibility.  Are there, for instance, a lot of scientists who are incompetent, and who can conceal this by producing sparkling sets of pilot data and proposed methods, but whose incompetence is revealed by their timeline?  Am I to be watching for the unfundable idiot who proposes publishing results first, then analysing the data, and only in the grant’s last year running the experiments?  And I’m not even getting into the issue of how absolutely non-shocking it would be if the actual research didn’t follow the proposed timeline.  That’s how it comes out almost every time; that just goes along with doing research that’s novel.  And so every Gantt chart I read (or make) is fiction.  What can one possibly mean?

I could go on (and believe me, I‘m tempted).  And maybe you see something I don’t in grant timelines – in which case, please tell us about it in the Replies.  But with the last grant I wrote, I had an epiphany.  I think I’ve figured it out: how to use the timeline to communicate information that’s actually relevant.  Not, I mean, information about the sequence of activities; but other, much more relevant information about the activities themselves.  I just had to think outside the box a little*.

Here’s what I did (and be warned, as epiphanies go, it’s on the trivial side).  The grant I was writing was for an agency that places very heavy weight on training of personnel (students at any level, technicians, etc.), and for a program that places heavy weight on knowledge transfer to policymakers.  There were sections devoted to each, but they were constrained to be fairly short.  So: I kept the detail of experiments and data analysis in my timeline to a bare minimum, and salted it heavily instead with activities and milestones related to training and knowledge transfer.  For example, here are a few of the milestones I listed:

Milestones 1-3 – Technical assistant, MSc students, postdoctoral fellow in place: July, Sept, Jan of Year 1

Milestone 6 – Honours student graduates: May of Year 2

Milestone 8 – MSc students defend: Dec of Year 2

Milestone 13 – Postdoctoral fellow employed (PDF elsewhere or permanent position): Jan of Year 3

Milestone 14 – Healthy Forests Partnership workshop (knowledge transfer), Mar of Year 3

What I’ve done, I think, is to co-opt the timeline as a signaling mechanism to emphasize my commitment to particular kinds of activities. Sure, they appear as a timeline, but I don’t care about that and I don’t expect my reviewers to care either!  What matters is the mix of activities I list.

Whether this works, unfortunately, I may never know, as funding rates for the program in question are expected to be low, and feedback will be minimal. And for it to work, I need people to not entirely ignore the timeline that I’ve admitted to ignoring myself!

Co-opting the timeline to signal commitment can’t be an entirely original idea (check this blog’s masthead).  But I’m curious how commonly the tactic is deployed, so in the next few grants I review I’m going to pay attention to the kind of activities listed more than to their duration or order.  Maybe I’m just discovering now what everyone else has known all along.

© Stephen Heard  February 25, 2019


*^”If you clicked that link, you saw me ranting about how thinking outside the box is actually, most of the time, dumb.  Do I contradict myself?  Sometimes, yes.

5 thoughts on “Timelines in grant proposals are useless. Here’s how I put them to use.

  1. sleather2012

    Yep, with you all the way, I never do more than say to myself “yes there is a GANTT chart but i am not going to read it” when I referee grant proposals 🙂 and if that means that RCUK will stop sending me proposals to review I will consider that a win 🙂

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    Reply
  2. Peter Leavitt

    Hey Stephen!
    Always the dissenting opinion….sigh. Anyhow, I think timelines in grants ARE useful.
    First, as an author, I use them to demonstrate how different treads/themes of a grant are integrated (and how they can be done on the 5-yr timeline proposed). Further, if you embed them in (NSERC) sections related to expenditures, so that they clearly link activities to costs and personnel (imagine a matrix of activity v. year; with the personnel added as actual timelines).
    As a reviewer, I use them to get a sense of whether the author actually has a sniff about managing large projects/programs. Most don’t, and it comes out in timelines that are a shit-tonne (I think that the technical term) of detail in year 1-2, then nothing by waffling towards the end. You don’t want 5 students in yr 1 and 0 in yr 5, so the timeline helps demonstrate how they will partition activities.
    Good timelines are gold. Sorry I can’t upload my example – I’m a stoneage socialmediaist…

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Happy to have dissenting opinions, Peter! Interesting point about HQP in project management. That is something I pay attention to, too, but to me it comes out more clearly in the way the relationship between sub-projects (including student ones) is explained. Yes, if I saw 5 students in year 1 in a Gantt chart I’d be suspicious; but I bet that level of amateurishness (is that a word?) would come out in other ways too.

      Now making a mental note: if I ever write a grant which is likely to end on YOUR desk, I will take special care with the timeline 🙂

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  3. Pingback: I hate checking proofs. Here’s how I make it (slightly) easier. | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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