Writing Skills Grants 101

What Are the Stakes?

Apr 11, 2022

Dear Research Strategists:

Avoid this key mistake in your grants: failing to explain the stakes. Stakes make reviewers care about your grant. 

Let me show you what I mean. My partner has been asking me for months to close the drawers in our kitchen. I’ve blithely ignored these requests. I’m busy. I need to get two kids to school on time. I’m not stopping to push in a few drawers. Instead, I dash around. Sometimes I throw granola bars at the kids, call it breakfast, and run out the door.

But one day, my partner said, “Drawers aren’t designed to be load bearing. When you leave drawers open, you risk them slowly being damaged. We’ll have to replace them eventually.” I perked up when he said this. I hadn’t considered these stakes. These are stakes I care about. Now I take the extra second to close the drawers every morning.

Problems with no stakes can be ignored. Stakes help reviewers understand why your problem (e.g., closing drawers) is worth prioritizing. Remember that you’re competing against other problems in the world (e.g., getting kids to school). 

Scholars often fail to explain stakes. Sometimes this happens because you believe the stakes are obvious. “Of course you should push in drawers.” “Of course studying child mental health matters. Duh.” But reviewers are not you. Reviewers don’t know what the stakes are. You need to say what failure and success mean. In our example above: Failure means broken drawers. Success means long-term home maintenance.

But maybe you think there are no stakes in your idea. That isn’t true. Your idea is so compelling you’re dedicating months of your limited time on earth to it. Figure out why you made this choice. 

Here’s a worksheet to help you figure out the stakes for your idea. Consider two sides of the spectrum, failure and success. What are the stakes for:

  • Society. What are the broader impacts of your work? How will your work change how we live or approach life? Example. My collaborators and I wrote a grant on integrating child disaster data. Failure to integrate data means we can’t plan for future disasters. We don’t understand what’s common to disasters versus specific to one disaster event. Success in integrating data would mean we could prevent long-term distress. We’d be better able to screen and triage children after disasters. 

  • Field. How does your idea impact your field? What’s the intellectual merit? Does your work shift paradigms, resolve an issue that prevents progress, introduce needed innovation? Example. Consider the disaster data integration grant above. Failure to integrate data means we cannot create rigorous and reproducible disaster science. Success means introducing methods we need to move the field forward to understand symptoms across development.

  • Philosophy. What’s the fundamental truth driving your grant? What beliefs about the world are embedded in your questions? Example. In my partner’s drawer example, the underlying philosophy is that we are people who care about taking care of our home. Pushing in drawers is one act that demonstrates this philosophy. In my disaster data integration grant above, the philosophy is the idea that data is meant to benefit society, not individuals. Sharing data is one way to enact this philosophy.

In summary, explain your stakes. You may not have stakes from every category in your grant. But think through all potential stakes. Thanks for reading and believing, like me, that scholars deserve support for incredible ideas. (Those are the philosophical stakes of this newsletter.)



Twitter: twitter.com/BettySLai

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P.P.S. What are your favorite kitchen tools? We have this “herb bird” below. It minces herbs. It’s definitely not a key kitchen item, but it’s fun. By the way - push in your drawers! 


[Photo of an herb bird.]