A few years ago, some colleagues and I pitched a 'high-risk' idea to program directors at a funding agency. The program directors were receptive, but funds were scarce (of course) and they suggested that we submit a full proposal through the usual channels, get destroyed in review, and then they could use the short-sighted negative review comments to support a case for circumventing peer and panel review.
Well, they didn't describe it exactly like that, and they did hold out the possibility that our pessimism about taking this idea through normal review channels might be unfounded -- perhaps we could get the full proposal funded on the first try!
So we wrote the proposal and were pretty thoroughly destroyed in review. Reviewers were convinced our central idea was misguided, even absurd. (spoiler alert: They were wrong.).
But we got a pilot project funded, and gave the project a try. I was convinced that the research was worth doing, but I thought it would be more difficult than it turned out to be (smug alert: I was wrong). In fact, within 6 months we had the results we needed to validate the idea and show that it was worthwhile to move forward with this line of research.
I don't really blame the skeptical reviewers. Although sometimes it seems like PIs need to do most (or all) of a research project before we can convince reviewers and panels that the project is doable (and worth doing), I admit that in this case, the idea was a bit surprising.
Nevertheless, armed with our new and exciting data, we started writing a full proposal again. The new proposal was even more fun to (re)write than the first proposal because we had the new preliminary data as strong and (I think) compelling core of the proposal. As the proposal-writing progressed, I kept reminding myself to look over the old reviews in case there was something worthwhile in there that should be dealt with in the proposal rewrite. Even in situations where reviews are overall not very useful, there might be something useful that can be mined from them.
For example, there might be some minor points that need attention. These might be minor, but it's a good idea to take these into consideration in case the proposal goes back to the same reviewers.
But I kept putting it off. At pretty much the last minute, I skimmed the reviews of the old, rejected proposal.
I am not usually such a coward about reading or re-reading negative reviews, and I didn't really feel particularly wounded by the reviews, even the first time I read them. I just felt like it would be a real downer to read those reviews again, and I was in a very good mood about the new proposal. Yes, I know we might be eviscerated in review again, but at the time of (re)writing, I was in that happy delusional state when I really like the proposal and am excited about the prospect of doing the project. I was reluctant to put a dent in that happy mood. And I knew that one of my colleagues had re-read the reviews in detail.
I mentioned to another colleague -- one who is not involved in this particular project -- that I needed to re-read some negative reviews of a proposal I was rewriting, and he said that he would rather have his fingernails ripped out than re-read old reviews of a rejected proposal.
That seems a bit extreme, but sort of captures the essence of my feelings about the matter.
I am not advising that anyone not re-read negative reviews when it is clearly in one's best interests to do so. It must be done, however unpleasant, but I think it is also important to find a way to minimize any damage such a (re)read might do to the positive energy that is driving you as you revise a proposal (or manuscript).
It occurred to me that, had I been thinking ahead when I read the reviews the first time, I could have jotted down any points worth addressing in a future proposal, and thereby avoided the full re-read later.
But if, like me, you don't think about that in time and you have to re-read the stupid reviews, perhaps the re-reading is best done in a pleasant cafe (or bar), or at home with your most sympathetic pet nearby, with your favorite music playing. Or you could re-read the annoying comments on a crowded bus or subway or at the dentist; that is, some place with unpleasant distractions. Or read them with a good colleague, take whatever is useful from them, and laugh about the rest.
My advice: Read them, but don't let them make you defensive (in your proposal) and don't let them stop you from enjoying writing your cool new proposal.
9 months ago