Don’t get too excited about that successful appeal against a grant rejection.
Since last week, Nature has been running an informal poll on its website, with striking results. Almost half of the thousand or so scientists who responded did not realize that it can be possible to appeal when they have a grant application rejected.
The poll was prompted by the remarkable story of a UK lab that successfully challenged such a rejection, and was subsequently awarded a €5-million (US$5.7-million) grant. Computer scientist Peter Coveney at University College London convinced the European Commission that it had made a mistake in turning down his bid to create a hub to apply computer models to biomedical data.
“If your research is in jeopardy as a part of poor decisions, then people should be prepared to challenge them,” Coveney said, in a rallying cry that will surely be applauded in labs across the world. What scientist does not feel wronged when their valuable contribution to society is not recognized and their application for funds spurned?
As inspiring as Coveney’s victory may seem to the ranks of the downtrodden and unappreciated, his case is unlikely to produce a surge of similar appeal successes. For starters, the fact that many scientists who answered our online poll did not know about possible appeals processes has made little difference to them or to their fortunes. Many big funders, including several national agencies, don’t allow appeals. Just like in sport, the referee’s decision is final, however unjust it might seem. And for those agencies that do allow appeals (a good way to find out is to check the funder’s website) any complaint must provide concrete evidence of an error. In Coveney’s case, the European Commission had mistakenly marked his application down for including something it had asked for.
Oh, and don’t call your appeal a complaint. As many agencies — even those that do permit appeals — make clear, they don’t respond in the same way to complaints. (Some, however, do allow appeals against results of investigations into complaints.)
The US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), for one, says that it prefers to start by handling any appeal as a ‘grievance’, which is turned into an ‘appeal’ only if it cannot be resolved. In that case, an authorized organizational representative (AOR) must write to the relevant NIAID programme officer. If the programme officer, who maybe working with a scientific review officer, disagrees with the AOR, then NIAID will send the appeal to its advisory council, and then on to the National Institutes of Health’s Center for Scientific Review. The principal investigator does not revise the rejected application, which is re-reviewed by either the same or a different scientific review group.
A successful appeal may not guarantee extra funds.
Confused? Any similarities between the complexity of some appeals processes and the way that rail companies, say, make the process to claim refunds for delayed services so complicated that most people don’t bother are surely coincidental. And yet, back in 1987, an article in The Scientist pointed out that the formal process for appealing against rejected grants was “one of the best-kept secrets in the scientific community” and added, cryptically, that “science administrators seem content to leave it that way” (see go.nature.com/d99fc5).
The secret is out now, thanks to Coveney’s efforts, and the decision in his favour announced last month. He and his co-applicants hired a lawyer to help them to negotiate the appeals process, but then the European Commission is known for its tortuous bureaucracy. Some research funders do, at least at first glance, seem to make the appeals process more benign. The British Academy, for example, simply invites those rejected to write to the chief executive, and then, as a last resort, to the president. Science Foundation Ireland intriguingly allows spurned applicants to appeal on the grounds of a wide range of possible failings in its procedures including the “inappropriate consideration of rumour/hearsay” by grant reviewers.
Be warned, though: a successful appeal does not guarantee extra funds. In its policy on grant-application appeals, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) states: “If NSERC concludes that a procedural error occurred during the review of the application, the resulting funding decision could be to leave the original decision unchanged, or to increase or decrease the level and/or duration of the grant or award.” Have appeals ever looked so unappealing?
Related links in Nature Research
How one lab challenged a grant rejection and won €5 million 2016-Apr-08
Grant application rejected over choice of font 2015-Oct-29
High-scoring grant applications yield more highly cited papers 2015-Apr-23
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Under appeal. Nature 532, 147–148 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/532147b