Video Grant Proposals

April 12th, 2011

Grand Challenges Canada is a nonprofit organization that strives to improve health care in developing countries.  The organization funds research in a rather innovative manner: they lay down challenges and require that PIs not only submit written proposals, but also two-minute video summaries.  The videos get posted to the Web where visitors can vote on them to assist the program in awarding funds.

I love this experiment in grant “writing”.  While this specific program is driven by a private organization, I see no reason why public agencies wouldn’t at least consider something similar.  I think that scientists need to be cognizant of the fact that most of our funding originates from the public, and we should feel a responsibility to keep the people informed of what we’re doing with their money and why it is important.  The value of this endeavor is magnified in times where budgets are tight; in politics, it is much better to be on offense than defense.

And just to be clear, I am *not* saying we should allocate grant money based solely on an online ballot open to the general public.  That is not what is going on here, anyway.  Rather, the willingness of the PI to engage the public (and her effectiveness is doing so) is important to the funding organization, so the organization has made this aspect a part of the scoring.  That makes perfect sense to me.

You can view the videos for the first challenge here.   Ratmir, an old labmate of mine, and the JACS Twitter feed, @J_A_C_S, brought this competition to my attention.  Ratmir’s video proposal on the use of paper as a platform for cell-based diagnostic assays can be viewed and voted on here.  It’s pretty well produced.  I hope you like progressive house music.

So far, the most popular video seems to belong to Krishna Khairnar, who is developing a field-based rectal swab collection system for diagnosing parasites.  I think his success might be something akin to Sanjaya Malakar’s on American Idol.  At one point in the video, Dr. Khairnar holds up his fecal-collection device.  It looks scary, and the fact that he doesn’t explain how it’s used makes it even scarier.  Also, I think he didn’t pay attention to the rules—the organizers cut him off mid-sentence at the two-minute mark.  I’d say “FAIL”, but he’s winning…


7 Responses to “Video Grant Proposals”

  1. Chemjobber Says:

    Perhaps there should be a “blind” screening where you can’t show your face (or use your voice?)

  2. David E Says:

    However imperfect peer review might be, fooling the public will always be easier than fooling your fellow scientists, so this is direction is a bit dangerous…

    On the other hand: this might give many beginning and anonymous PIs a better chance for a slice of the funding pie.

  3. Ratmir Derda Says:

    to David E: fooling the public is NOT easy, same is true about raising public voices and attracting public interest. This competition is a good example how little attention science videos attract, even when there are millions of dollars at steak. Applicants who have great ideas but do not pursue aggressive vote-demanding approaches (e.g. hundreds of Facebook posts) collected ~100 votes in a month. Even the “highest bidders”, however, loose to an average YouTube teenager who can raise 1000s of votes in mere days. Let alone show-biz videos that raise more “views” in a month than all scientific magazines/journals do in a year.

    The ability to attract attention on the internet is a skill. The question is whether modern scientists should know this skill. Today, every scientist must know how to make PowerPoint slides and how to make a talk interesting. Although fancy slides are not a substitute for the peer review system, a publicity that stems from a good talk yields a lot of advantage. I think it is only a matter of time when web videos and votes will play similar (or even greater) role.

  4. Ratmir Derda Says:

    Notes added in proof: “lose” =”loose”, “at steak” = “at stake” (don’t blog before lunch, when steak is all you can think about)

  5. Rafael Najmanovich Says:

    I think the idea of the videos is excellent. As the author of a submission (Chagas disease http://bit.ly/hc1THi) I have to say that as scientists we are not really trained either on the technical as well as on the ‘artistic’ skills necessary for such videos. Preparing such a video is completely different from preparing/delivering a normal presentation. Some tips to Grand Challenges Canada for the future:

    1. Allow people to submit two entries if they wish, one in English, one in French.
    2. Provide some tips about what works and what doesn’t from the point of view of raising interest in the viewers in terms of format, content, etc.
    3. Suggest some tools for different types of formats. For example, I opted for a presentation screencast and I had to research what software to use, I end up finding ScreenFlow (I am not affiliated to them – Mac only). If I had had a how-to help page it would have saved me time and perhaps allowed me to make a more informed choice of format/content.

    There is a wide range of previous abilities from the different applicants, different levels of institutional support, and of course intrinsic ability of the applicants to explain their projects. Unfortunately, I have the feeling that the number of votes is somewhat skewed by the artistic quality of the videos, the amount of aggressive campaigning by the institution in popularizing the vote, etc, rather than the quality of the science within or the ability to applicant to get across clearly what the project is all about. While an interest in the part of the selection committee to see the ability of the applicant to popularize his science is laudable, the popular vote is not the right way to judge that.

  6. Bob from Moose Jaw Says:

    The first step that needs to be done is addressing stuffing of the ballot box.

    The way the current Grand Challenges Canada video site code is set up, it is trivial for one person to vote for a particular video an arbitrary amount of times. Checking around the site, some videos have *astronomical* numbers of votes, despite having little or no tweets or Facebook posts. Even with, for instance, a primarily e-mail based campaign, one would expect some of the thousands of viewers of the video would click on these items below the video. Instead, they have none.

    Will the administrators be comparing video votes with the number of times each video is played? Or seeing if many votes are originating from a limited number of IP addresses? Either would be easy to do, and would effectively screen for fake votes.

    It looks like some of the scientists worked hard to produce a good video, and are currently working hard to get the vote out. I have a feeling these young researchers are now getting ripped off. There is nothing to stop someone undermining the effort of their peers by tampering with their votes.

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