Every once in a while, there is an offensive statement in a review of one of my proposals. I am not talking about a "This research is not worth doing" type of statement, or even a "The PI has absolutely no qualifications to do this kind of research" type of statement. I mean statements that, in the view of the funding agency, inappropriately comment on an aspect of the proposal or the PI.
Some program directors at funding agencies will redact portions of reviews that they consider inappropriate. I know one program director who deletes such review comments and, in the specific place where the text has been deleted, inserts a statement that this has been done. He also includes an explanatory note that the comments were inappropriate and were not considered in the final decision about the proposal. The comments are not actually deleted from the system, but the PI can't see them.
I think that in some cases these comments are inappropriate because they are offensive, and in others they are inappropriate for technical reasons.
Another option that program directors seem to have is to strike-through the offending text. This leaves the text still visible to the PI but lets the PI know that the program director thought the comment was not appropriate. The overall ranking of the proposal by that reviewer may still be considered, even if particular comments are ignored.
I have seen both types of deletions of review comments in my proposals, but the strike-through method was used in the specific example I am going to mention today.
The specific example I wish to consider involved a review comment on the Broader Impacts section of one of my NSF proposals.
NSF's guidelines for what might be considered Broader Impacts include this statement:
How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g. gender, ethnicity... etc.).
In a one page description of the Broader Impacts of my proposed research, amidst a long summary list of activities of a Broader Impactish sort, was this item in a bulleted list (to be exact: the last item in the list):
and research support for a female faculty member (the PI).
The Broader Impacts part of my proposal was quite favorably reviewed by all but one reviewer. That last statement set off one of the proposal reviewers, who expressed severe disgust and revulsion for this kind of tactic. The program director had put a line through this strongly worded opinion about my use of my gender to get a grant. The reviewer also expressed a similar but less harshly worded opinion in other comments (not lined-through) in the same review, and his/her disgust seems to have affected the overall ranking, which was the lowest of the set.
Of course I didn't need to mention in the proposal that funding this proposal would support the research of an FSP. So why did I include it in my proposal?
I must admit that I didn't give it a lot of thought when I was writing the proposal. To the extent that I had a motive, I suppose I added that last item to my bulleted list summarizing all the Broader Impacts of the project because it made the list complete (note use of defensive font). If someone was pre-inclined to be suspicious of women PI's, I can see why they would be offended by the inclusion of such an obvious statement, although of course one would hope that such a reviewer could ignore their anger and revulsion and at least give an objective review of the Intellectual Merit of the proposal.
In discussing this situation with colleagues, I have heard different hypotheses for the reason behind the reviewer's high level of disgust, which went far beyond being uncomfortable about the concepts of gender diversity or Broader Impacts, but all these hypotheses involve the same central element: the reviewer, male or female, hates the idea that someone might get a grant (or job or other 'privilege') just because she is female, and not because of intrinsic merit, whatever that is.
Somewhere out there is a reviewer who ignored 99.9% of the proposal and got incensed about one item in a summary list in the Broader Impacts section. I hope that the program director will remember that this reviewer is hostile to proposals that mention gender diversity in their Broader Impact statements, at least when it is a woman PI mentioning this.
Perhaps I will leave such an obvious statement out of my proposals in the future, as it doesn't add anything substantive. Even so, most proposals that I review are by male PI's who are involving women students in research, and who mention their efforts to increase gender diversity in the sciences as part of their Broader Impacts statement. Perhaps this is OK with my hostile reviewer as long as these female students don't grow up to become FSPs who write their own proposals.
9 months ago