It recently came to my attention that a certain scientist had submitted identical proposals to two different funding sources at the same time. Submitting "overlapping" proposals to the same funding agency is prohibited by some (but not all?) funding agencies.
Scattering the same proposal among different programs in the hopes that one (or more) of them will fund the proposal might seem like an efficient strategy for the PI who invested a lot of time in a proposal, but this practice is prohibited for good reasons. Given the time and effort involved by funding agency employees, panel members, and reviewers to deal with the large number of submitted proposals, a prohibition on overlap makes sense
NIH outlines in detail the consequences of the simultaneous submission of proposals with scientific overlap. I did a rather quick search of the NSF website to try to find a similar document, but didn't find anything. It seems like there must be a policy, though, so maybe I just missed it.
Rejecting proposals for reasons of overlap is straightforward if the proposals are identical or even "essentially identical" (in the words of the NIH document). It might become more difficult to judge overlap when the definition is extended to proposals containing "similar" research, another term used in the NIH document, but I suppose experienced program directors know it (overlap) when they see it.
In the case to which I referred in the first sentence of this post, there was no administrative mechanism by which the "overlap" could have been detected if a reviewer had not been become aware of both proposals. I suppose there is a high probability of a reviewer's discovering overlap in cases in which the research is highly specialized and both funding programs use peer review. The same reviewer(s) are likely to be sent both proposals.
In the first sentence of this post, I used the vague term "funding source" deliberately so that I could consider the ethics and consequences of the following situations:
- Identical proposals are sent to different programs of one funding agency that specifically prohibits submission of overlapping proposals. This is clearly wrong and both proposals would be rejected
- Identical proposals are sent to different programs of a funding agency that does not have specific rules about overlap. Reviewers might balk at this (if the overlap is detected) because it is annoying and seems unethical, but if there are no rules against it, what's to stop a dual proposal submission?
- Identical proposals are sent to two completely different funding agencies, one or both of which may or may not have rules about overlapping proposals within each agency. Again, reviewers might balk at this, but is it wrong?
I have never attempted submission of overlapping proposals and am not really interested in doing so, though I'm not sure why not. There is something appealing about the general concept of sending a proposal out into a broad funding universe to see if anyone would like to give me money for my research. This would reduce the time spent trying to figure out to which one of several possible programs a proposal will be sent, a decision that may involve making likely unfounded assumptions about the scientific preferences and sanity levels of the program officers and hoping that an interdisciplinary proposal won't fall through the cracks between programs.
It does seem wrong, though. And speaking as someone who just reviewed quite a few proposals, I certainly don't want to see multiple versions of any of these, even the ones that were Very Good*.
* In NSF-speak, Very Good is not as good as Excellent but much better than Good, which is not good at all, except when compared to the dreaded Fair and Poor.
10 months ago