Close-up of someone receiving mails with bad news as subject txt.

Adam Golberg e-mails unsuccessful grant applicants as soon as possible, and then follows up with feedback designed to soften the blow.Credit: Jessica Hallett/Nature

I support researchers in identifying suitable research-funding opportunities — with a particular focus on charities — and help them to submit the most compelling and competitive applications possible. I help to open funding doors for researchers. But sometimes, I have to tell them that a funding door has shut in their faces.

Many external funding schemes limit the number of applications that any university can submit. Usually, this is an attempt to reduce the number of proposals needing review, which transfers work to universities. In supporting our internal review processes — decisions taken by internal panels, not by me — I have to break bad news. Sometimes, this is to early-career researchers applying for fellowships or other crucial boosts; sometimes, it’s to more-senior colleagues in response to proposals for major research or doctoral-training initiatives. And it’s worse than any rejection from an external funder, because it’s coming from their own institution.

These recipients of bad news are my colleagues, so I have a duty of care to them. I feel gratitude that they’ve engaged with the funding opportunities I’m supporting, and have given the university options to choose from. I don’t expect them to be happy or pleased with the result, but I’d like them to think that the process has been fair. This means that I have to give good feedback.

Get straight to the point

There are ways to communicate bad news sympathetically. Some are very easy. Others are more complex and time-consuming.

This is what I do, and what I think all universities should do for their internal schemes and sifting processes. First, I try to ‘rip the plaster off’ and communicate clearly and quickly. As soon as possible, I’ll e-mail the applicant (during working hours) and put something like “Bad news — [scheme name]” in the subject line. If it were up to me, this would be standard practice for all ‘outcome’ letters where the stakes are high. We’ve all had that experience of frantically scanning a letter or e-mail for the result, only to find the words swimming before our eyes and refusing to coalesce into the information we seek.

I’ll then follow it up — later — with a feedback e-mail. These can take a long time to write. Normally, I’ve got written feedback from panel members who’ve led in reviewing the proposal, plus my own notes from the panel meeting. Sometimes, I’ll have a ranking of various applications with a line (say, between the fourth- and fifth-ranked application) where the money runs out. The written comments are often blunt and intended for other panel members. It’s much quicker to write feedback that way. It takes much longer to rephrase it in a form suitable for applicants — in other words, to make it less direct and to draw some of the sting, without diluting the message or hiding any constructive criticism. I’ll also summarize panel discussions, including disagreements, about the final decision and about individual applications. Doing this well takes hours. But these are my colleagues, and I don’t begrudge a second.

Responding helpfully to applicants requires communicating a solid understanding of what feedback on an unsuccessful grant application means, and what it does not mean. I’m going to spell that out here, because I think it might help any unsuccessful applicant who is poring over feedback or reviewer comments.

What feedback is … and is not

Research funding is a contest, not a test. It’s not about meeting a pre-set standard: it’s about a proposal winning funding because it has been judged as better than rival ones.

There’s no limit to the number of driving licences or PhDs that can be awarded. These require you to pass a test, and anyone who meets the standard succeeds. They are unlimited goods. My success in the morning has no implications for your chances in the afternoon. Research grants — like Olympic medals — are limited goods. They’re the outcome of contests for scarce resources. This seems like an obvious point, but it’s easy to forget. In every call for proposals, there are very many more applications that the panel would like to support but lack the budget to do so.

The reason applications don’t get funded has at least as much to do with the applications that are chosen. But, for obvious reasons, there’s nothing in the feedback about those winning proposals. Perhaps there’s a bland statement about how competitive a process was, and how difficult the decision (which is usually true), but no one really takes this in. Feedback on an unsuccessful application might not include the reasons that it was unsuccessful, because those reasons relate to other proposals.

Often, I find that the detail, usefulness and clarity of feedback are often in inverse proportion to how close a proposal was to succeeding. If there’s a detailed critique pointing out (perceived) fundamental flaws and weaknesses, these comments might explain why your proposal wasn’t funded. However, if criticisms are minor, vague or nitpicky, that’s often a sign that there wasn’t a great deal wrong with your proposal. And if there are a lot of positive comments, that can be a sign that you were close — but that, ultimately, the panel felt that other proposals offered more.

There might not be much (or even anything) that you and your team could have done differently, or that could be changed or improved in your application. So, try to resist scanning reviewers’ comments and fixating on one or more negative comments and assuming that they were the reason you were unsuccessful. It could be that you submitted the best possible version of your idea, and that there was nothing more you could have done.

What could funders do better?

Give it to them straight. Put the outcome in the e-mail subject line and send it to the applicant during office hours.

Provide a ranking and a sense of how close a proposal came to being funded. This should be easy for funders to provide. Some schemes have multiple stages, and it’s straightforward to share the stage at which a proposal was eliminated. If reviewer scores generate rankings, the ranking (and funding cut-off) could be shared. The sharing of rankings is common in European Union reviews of funding applications.

Don’t just share ‘raw’ reviewers’ comments without filtering or context. This can be damaging because the grumpy, obstructive, pedantic ‘Reviewer 2’, as such a referee is commonly known, is simply being ‘Reviewer 2’. Such reviewers might fundamentally misread or misunderstand a proposal, or obsess over some minor detail, or be oddly hostile. Panel members notice and disregard what needs disregarding. But without context, applicants won’t know that, and might wrongly conclude that Reviewer 2 was the sole reason they didn’t get funded. Even a short paragraph summarizing panel discussions to provide a bit of context — flagging disregarded comments — would help here.

Produce accurate, frank and humane summaries of reviewer feedback and panel discussions. This isn’t cheap, and many funders won’t have the capacity to do it because it takes so much work (and no little skill) to do well. But I think that when public money is being spent, this would be a good use of resources — and if I had to choose, I’d prioritize early-career schemes.

Publish public ‘success statements’. Public statements written by funders about each successful proposal, explaining what they liked about it and why it was chosen, can be a great source of encouragement.

Publish a summary of the overall funding round. This should include some generalized feedback on common errors, features of successful proposals, and whether and how this round differed from previous rounds. What were the emerging trends? What would the panel like to see more or less of? What’s under-represented in their portfolio?

Ultimately, we have many more good ideas than we have funding to support them. Although funders can’t change that, many of them could do more than they currently do to give effective and kind feedback — no matter how busy they are. This would better respect the time and effort of unsuccessful applicants, and would help them to learn from any mistakes or move on in the knowledge that they did all they could.