"Risky" is a double-edge sword in science that can cut both ways when it comes to funding agencies. In some contexts, such as the R21 mechanism at NIH and some seed programs, risky with a high up-side is a good thing. In more typical mechanisms, risky can be StockCritique (TM) for "we want to see proof before we give you money". Sometimes that criticism is warranted, other times it's just a bar-raiser for having most of the project done before you submit for funding.
Both NIH and NSF have certainly be criticized for shying away from risky projects and both have had trouble responding to those claims. Panels and Study Sections can be conservative with limited funds and unless the POs actively encourage the consideration of potentially transformative (in NSF-speak) work, a prove it or lose it mentality can take over.
But when was the last time you walked out of a really good talk and thought "that was some super cool data that came from a totally ordinary idea!"? Sure, it can happen, but...
When I started my lab I basically started three projects: One that was a slam dunk in terms of working, one that was a reach but I knew we could do and a related one that needed a LOT of ground work to be laid but would be worth it.
That first project we were able to get funded relatively easily (one resubmit), but the other two have taken some time. Part of the reason is that those two have had to be developed from scratch and that process takes longer (and more start-up $) than you think it will. In retrospect, it may have been wiser to have one more slam dunk project in the hopper earlier on before working on these but hindsight is always 20/20.
In any case, with project number two the gamble appears to be paying off. We had a lab meeting today where my grad student presented some compelling data that are demonstrating some of the things we had hoped to see. We have the data and a well thought out analysis plan that have borne some very exciting findings already with more undoubtedly behind them. The project is evolving from something that was risky into something that will be a slam dunk for funding* once we wade through the remaining data. Nearly fours years since starting the lab, with many adjustments along the way, we're seeing the project come together the way we hoped it would.
Yes, this could have blown up in our faces and we had several plan Bs ready to get something out of the data if it did, but if things keep going the way the are** this will be well worth the loss of sleep and gray hairs cultivated over the data and finances of the project.
Four years may seem like an eternity when trying to get the lab rolling (and it has), but seeing the fruit of that labor, the incredible collaborations that have come out of it and the development of the students who have made it happen, is all pretty sweet.
*Inasmuch as anything is....
**que lab disaster that smites me for hubris