If someone just gave me a bunch of money, would you be interested? Probably not. That’s because when one person gets money it is not inherently interesting to anyone else. But when that money comes in the form of a research grant, there’s often a lot of pressure on public information officers (PIOs) to stir up interest among reporters.
I am a PIO, and I struggled with this particular task for a few years before realizing that, sometimes, promoting grant awards can actually have very real benefits for the researchers and the work they do. Let’s discuss.
Why Writing About Grants Is Hard
Writing about grants is hard because the researchers who received the grant haven’t actually done anything yet. Instead, the researchers have identified a problem or challenge and made a convincing argument that they might be able to shed some light on it. In fact, the argument was apparently so convincing that someone was willing to give them money to do the relevant work.
I attended a conference of higher ed PIOs five years ago, where attendees had the opportunity to grill a panel of three higher ed reporters about what they would and wouldn’t be interested in writing about. Someone asked how large a grant had to be in order to catch their attention. One reporter said $25 million, one reporter said $50 million, and one reporter said there was no grant big enough to get his interest. (As I said, getting money is not inherently interesting.)
And if higher ed reporters aren’t particularly interested in writing about grants, you can bet that science reporters aren’t interested. Instead, science reporters are interested in the research findings that stem from the work that grants support. And those findings usually don’t appear until years after the grant is awarded.
To be clear, everyone acknowledges that research grants are important. But being important is not the same as being interesting. For example, funding for cancer research is enormously important. But lots of researchers at lots of institutions get lots of grants to study various aspects of cancer. No one is going to write about every single one of those grants, because the grants aren’t interesting. The grant will get written about when, and if, it leads to interesting results.
Why Writing About Grants Can Actually Be Useful
When I started working as a PIO, I thought writing about grants was more or less a waste of time. However, if the grant was big enough, I had to write about it anyway. It was while writing about one of these large grants that I learned that there can be very practical benefits for the researchers involved.
I had written about a reasonably significant research grant and, while most reporters had ignored it, a few specialized outlets did pick up the story. It was through one of those news outlets that another researcher (I’ll call him “Dr. Z”) read about the work that “my” researcher (“Dr. A”) would be doing with his new grant. Dr. Z was working on a similar – but different – research project on the other side of the country. Dr. Z contacted Dr. A and offered to share his data set. His large, robust data set. Dr. A agreed immediately, and offered to return the favor once he’d compiled his own data set. Dr. A was off to a running start on his research project, and both researchers would ultimately get larger data sets than they anticipated. The real winner, of course, was the research itself – a more robust data set is a good thing.
Dr. A called to tell me his exciting news (and he was excited), because he was sure that he wouldn’t have gotten the data set if we hadn’t decided to promote his grant – for the simple reason that Dr. Z’s research was just different enough from Dr. A’s that they would probably not have met under other circumstances – and certainly not in such a timely way for Dr. A’s work.
It dawned on me that this was a great reason to promote grants – to raise awareness in the research community of emerging research initiatives, thus creating opportunities for formal or informal collaboration.
That made sense to me, and I’ve since become a much more enthusiastic promoter of grant awards.
How To Promote Grants (or, at least, how I promote grants)
Enthusiastic, but not unrealistic. I still don’t expect most reporters to get excited about a researcher getting a grant. I only pitch stories about grants to reporters who cover extremely specific, relevant beats. For example, if a researcher gets a grant to study multi-hop wireless networks, I would only pitch the story to reporters who I know cover multi-hop wireless networks – I wouldn’t pitch it to reporters who cover a broad technology beat, or even to reporters who cover networks generally.
And when I write about grants, I try to make it as little about the grant as possible. You can (and should, in my opinion) dispense with the grant in one or two brief sentences, saying how much the grant is for, how long it’s for and where the funding came from.
Instead, when I write about grants, I try to write about the problem or challenge that the researcher will use the grant funding to address. Problems and challenges are usually interesting. Who is affected by them? Why are they important?
I also try to write about what makes the researcher’s approach interesting. Are they taking a crazy new angle that nobody thinks will work? How does their approach fit into the existing body of knowledge about the subject? What are the range of possible outcomes? For example, even if an experiment fails, you can still learn a lot from it. What can we learn if it fails? What if it succeeds?
I don’t mean to get bogged down in hypothetical questions – that’s a dangerous game. But if you can say that a research project will tell us whether a specific approach is a dead-end or worth pursuing, that may be worthwhile.
So, PIOs, go ahead and work to promote research grant awards. But be smart about it: write about why the problem matters (since there are no findings yet); only pitch it to people you think might actually be interested (this, of course, is always good advice); and don’t get your feelings hurt if nobody writes about it. It’s only money.