We report on changes in the expression of epistemic stance in competitive funding applications—that is, applicants’ confidence and certainty towards knowledge and beliefs. We analysed abstracts describing all projects funded by the US National Institutes of Health during the period 1985–2020 for 140 stance features. Trends that we identify indicate that applicants adopt a stance less cautious and less tentative, and increasingly confident, optimistic, and promissory. This is evidenced, for example, by a consistent decline in weak possibility/probability, as expressed by modal verbs (e.g. may, might, should), by epistemic status verbs (indicate, seem) and adverbs (e.g. possible, probable, perhaps); and an increase among features that convey certainty, importance, and empiricism—for example, status verbs (e.g. demonstrate, establish, reveal), and adverbs that emphasize frequency/degree (usually, widely, almost). We argue that (i) these shifts are best understood in relation to increasing salesmanship and structural and cultural shifts within the research ecosystem, and (ii) trends in this dataset are better analysed at the level of individual features, rather than at the level of metadiscoursal categories.

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