Reviewing Proposals for Foreign Funding Agencies

I spent the first half of this week on travel (fun, exhausting, “the uzhe,” as Eldest would say), followed by a full day of taking kids to various physical exams and dental cleanings, and another day full of meeting my graduate students. Now I have 2.5 weeks before the next trip.

I want to take this opportunity to celebrate a great yet fleeting victory over my work load. As of today, I (temporarily) have no more stuff written by other people (specifically, people who are not my students) in my To-Do folder. In my capacity as an associate editor, I read and then made referrals for the review of a manuscript; I read and then desk-rejected another. I also completed two paper reviews as a referee and submitted a proposal review to a foreign funding agency.

I try to review as much as possible for the journals where I publish often, and I definitely review proposals for the agencies that give me money. The exception is that will generally review stuff where the author is someone whose work I know well, even if it’s in journals or funding agencies I don’t consider.

But, over the last few months, I have been inundated with review requests for proposals to foreign funding agencies: the UK, Swiss, Austrian, and Canadian versions of the NSF. The UK folks alone [Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)] have sent me 5 or 6 proposals since February, and they are relentless in sending reminders.

I have to admit I am a little irritated. Reviewing anything takes a lot of time and is generally not a paid activity. It takes away from the time I could be spending on my own work and on my own students. So when expecting people to review stuff, I think there should be at least some theoretical tit-for-tat: I review for journals where I too have my own papers reviewed, I review for agencies where I too have my own proposals reviewed. However, I really find it hard to justify spending my limited time to review proposals for agencies to which I will never be eligible to submit.

Someone might say, “Well, perhaps they don’t have enough experts in their own country to review?” but I would say the EU is probably plenty large to find experts, and I know many solicitations are open to all EU citizens. Furthermore, most US government agencies (in the physical sciences) rarely use reviewers who are not based in the US. So European agencies bugging me in the US to do proposal review for free, and so often, really makes little sense.

As DH says, it’s my fault – I should have never agreed to review for them even once.

What say you, blogosphere? How do you decide when to accept to review papers and proposals? 


  1. I def say no to these type of things unless there is an honorarium and even then I weigh the cost benefit. My only exception is for developing countries where I have some sort of relationship. EU would not qualify. Tell them no!

  2. You are not alone- this year I have had multiple requests for proposal review from EU solicitations (for the first time in my long career), and others in my field (which I think is very much a different discipline from yours) report the same thing to me this year. I suspect this is some sort of deliberate effort to get USA scientists to review EU proposals: it must be some sort of new policy or initiative for some reason. Perhaps there was some sort of scandal or evaluatory finding that their proposal peer review system is too “inbred” or something?

  3. Smaller countries do not often have the luxury of only using reviewers from their own country. In some countries if you do not have an international reviewer who reviews your proposal then it is ineligible for funding. This includes at least one of the countries you have mentioned above. The NSF also uses reviewers outside the USA. I am one of those who regularly reviews for NSF (and other funding agencies) even though I am not based in the USA eligible for funding from there. Just as the peer review process for journals is generally international for the best journals, I think we get the best results when it is also is for funding agencies. I want to see the best ideas funded and to support great research in other countries also. When we all participate in an international peer review process, then it does work. In my view any agency that only uses reviews from their own country is ‘inbred’ and this can badly disadvantage researchers in smaller or emerging fields. It is however a great way of reinforcing and maintaining the status quo

  4. You are under no obligation to review unsolicited proposals, with the exception being an agency that has or may fund you (e.g., I think all NIH funded folks should serve on Study Section at some point). I look at each, and occasionally agree if I am interested in the area or am well acquainted with and respect the work of the investigator.

  5. I almost always say no to foreign review requests – and similar to you, I’ve noticed a large uptick in the number of requests this year. It simply takes too much time to do a good job.

  6. By the way, some of these foreign panels pay an honorarium. So you can be mercenary about it if you want, and demand money for your time.

    For me, my criteria for reviewing foreign grants is the exact same as my criteria for reviewing US grants (I’m a US-researcher): Do I care if this gets funded or not? Do I think that my input is useful here? (And, unfortunately more and more often, how do the answers to those two questions balance against my other obligations and time?)

    I don’t know about you, but my field is highly international, with colleagues across the world, so why wouldn’t I review their grants if I’m the obvious expert?

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