So, today I received N (N=125^(1/3)) detailed written reviews of my competitive grant renewal (mail-in review). N-1 are positive, from completely glowing to enthusiastic but with some specific requests for clarifications.
The Nth is negative, as in — there is nothing new here and the proposal is just awfully written and diffuse and should have been narrower in focus because the PI attempts to do too much (not sure how the scope can be too broad if there’s nothing new, but whatever). The lack of novelty is detailed as this one specific group somewhere in Europe doing something related, so apparently no one anywhere else in the world gets to do anything similar. Another aspect is that there are all these well-known techniques, so why doesn’t the author use them? Because those techniques give A and I am after B, for which there are currently no techniques, hence I propose to develop one.
I don’t know if men ever get reviews like this one, but I do receive them with some regularity, for both grants (more often) and papers (less often). Basically, the reviewer has decided that he (likely he, from the statistics (few women in the field) and the general know-it-all tone) doesn’t like what I’m selling without necessarily investigating what that is. The lack of novelty is decided based on some vague idea that, somewhere else, someone more respectable and/or reputable than me (i.e., someone the reviewer knows) says they have done something that sort of sounds like what I say I’d do, so the more respectable and/or reputable individual must have completely solved the problem for all eternity and there’s no need to look into any of it by anyone ever again (in reality, the person may have published a paper or two to scratch the surface of the problem).
If there is something unclear, especially in a proposal, I am not given the benefit of the doubt that I do know what I am doing. The assumption is never competent until proven otherwise. The default is that I can’t possibly know what I am doing, that whatever I proposed couldn’t possibly be new or fulfill a legitimate open need. You know, if the problem were really as interesting and important and unsolved, as I claim, someone more worthy somewhere else would have thought of solving it already.
There is no such thing as a perfect proposal. This benefit of the doubt some people are given and others are not (despite high productivity with earlier funding) is the difference between getting funded and not. This is why, with another agency, I was recommended for funding but just below the funding line at least three times (as bloggy friend Alex says, “I’m the best of the worst”): When the funding is scarce and there is only money to fund 1-2 grants, you give the funds to those you trust will do a great job, and I am just not the most trustworthy of the lot. “But her emails!” must have been the grant reviewers’ thoughts.
Such bullshit, seriously.