Dear grant agencies: tell me where I went wrong

By | May 1, 2021

I am just starting my second year as a research fellow at the University of Glasgow, UK. Most of my first year – particularly time spent in lockdown – was devoted to writing grant applications aimed at early career researchers (ECRs).

These grants are typically for small amounts (£ 20,000, or less than US $ 27,800), but are extremely competitive, with hundreds of applications and less than 10% success rates. It seems strange when compared with a multimillion-pound grant my line manager is applying, which probably has 20-30 applicants and a success rate of around 20%.

During 2020, I applied for two fellowships, three small grants aimed at the ECR and one medium-sized grant. All were rejected. Rejection is disappointing, especially when a lot of effort and time has been invested, but it is part of scientific life. There were better candidates with better applications, and the only thing I can do is to improve and try again.

But my problem is with ‘trying again’. Out of those six applications, I received feedback for only one. Responsibilities for others now include the hate sentence “due to the amount of applications we are unable to respond to”.

This is a source of massive frustration for me – not because I was not awarded the grant, but because it gives me no way of knowing how I can improve next time. Worse, the very response I received was very helpful; I can’t help but wonder what could have been had I got the quality of the review six times.

I know what it feels like. Yes, it is disheartening to be rejected and yes, it is satisfying to rebel against some element of the review process rather than simply accepting the rejection. But it seems that grant agencies will have notes to reviewers anyway: Why not send them with any disapproval?

Although I have never been involved in reviewing any grant or fellowship proposal, I have refereed a good number of papers. I always try to give the best, most constructive reviews. I think that as a job of a reviewer, and I would be offended if I found out that my response to the author had not passed. It amazes me that everyone acknowledges the lack of feedback for grant applications.

I also find it a bit outrageous, asking us about the time invested and the many favors – from letters of recommendation from other academics, heads of department and industry partners, for example, and in conversations with commercial suppliers.

Dropped prices to fit budget. And then there is the time of many people, whom we have asked to review our proposal and provide feedback. After receiving a rejection e-mail, I contacted everyone who helped me and said that I was sorry, it did not work. People always ask, “What did they say?” And am often surprised to find that I did not get any response.

Peer-reviewed journals are slowly moving towards more open-ended science, with double-blind reviews and public referee reports, but funding agencies have stuck in the past. I think the time has come to change funding agencies. Please help me do better next time.

These grants are typically for small amounts (£ 20,000, or less than US $ 27,800), but are extremely competitive, with hundreds of applications and less than 10% success rates. It seems strange when compared with a multimillion-pound grant my line manager is applying, which probably has 20-30 applicants and a success rate of around 20%.

During 2020, I applied for two fellowships, three small grants aimed at the ECR and one medium-sized grant. All were rejected. Rejection is disappointing, especially when a lot of effort and time has been invested, but it is part of scientific life. There were better candidates with better applications, and the only thing I can do is to improve and try again.

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