Friday, October 13, 2006


I have been mulling over some recent reviews of an NSF proposal that wasn't funded. There are a lot of positive critical comments in the reviews to help with revising the proposal, and we got enough Excellents and Very Goods to definitely warrant resubmission. So, although I'm disappointed, I feel optimistic, and I have enough funding to keep me going for a while, so the rejection doesn't have dire consequences. As usual, though, I brood over the criticisms that I consider off-base/unfair, though fortunately I only brood over these for a few days.

Since the few days of brooding are not yet up: The comment that is most annoying in these reviews is one that says that I shouldn't get this new grant because I already have enough funding and am "overcommitted". I have a long record of showing that I can handle several simultaneous projects, get results, and publish them, so this criticism is baseless. Moreover, I have been on enough panels to know that there are men in my field who have more grants than I do, that this criticism is not applied to them, and that they just keep getting more grants.

I suppose I shouldn't look at absolutely everything through the Gender Lens. My husband has gotten reviews that have said he already has enough funding, but those comments have been phrased in terms of "and there's not enough money to go around", whereas in this case, the criticism is of me and my ability to manage my time and my research group.

In an effort to be not quite so relentlessly negative, I will say that most of the reviews said very nice things about my research group, and I will try to keep those comments in mind. I feel very fortunate to have the funding that I do, and to be able to support my excellent grad students and other researchers. Next time..


PhD Mom said...

Wow. I am really appalled by your last few posts. I can't believe that people would still treat you this way in this day and age. And what in the world is a 'junior' full professor? I would stand my ground and possibly attempt to seek help from the diversity office. I appreciate you hanging in there it will make it much easier when true jr faculty like myself get to the point that you are at. Thanks.

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Anonymous said...

SPW--I have a question for you (only because this has happened to me!). Have you had proposals like this rejected, and then seen someone else in your field do the research themselves? Someone who you know reviewed the proposal (positively or negatively, doesn't matter)?

Not that I don't think being "overcommitted" is a crock--would you really submit the proposal if you couldn't do the work?--but that it can be used as a screen/excuse for someone, um, less overcommitted, to jump on your idea and go while you are revising/resubmitting and they don't have anything to stop them from doing the work anyway...

just asking

Anonymous said...

I don't see any reason not to view everything through the gender lens. It seems to me that a great deal of trouble that women in science experience has to do precisely with the fact that many, many people are not looking through their gender lens at all, ever. And are pretending to themselves that nothing has to do with gender ever. Like your moronic colleague who can't listen to you when you say NO GODDAMMIT I AM NOT GOING TO TEACH THAT STUPID GODDAM COURSE GO GET SOMEONE ELSE ASSHOLE. Okay, you said it much nicer than I did. I am absolutely sure that if he had asked a male colleague and the male said, "no, I already have x amount of time this summer devoted to research travel and I can't take anymore time away from the family/research" he would have said, "okay I'll ask someone else" because, well, because a guy said it. And yes, I think that when good ideas come across review panels sometimes reviewers try to steal them; just a few months ago there was a First Person column in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about exactly that happeneing to a female scientist (I blogged about it here

Anonymous said...

Having just returned from a review panel - all I can say is that it is tough out there (which you know - the % of proposals receiving funding this trip was lower than I've ever seen it). I always love going to NSF - it's one of the rare times when panels I've been on have had equal numbers of women versus men. That said - comments like that are annoying for sure. What are you supposed to less successful? An excellent and/or very good is just that - highly meritorious and worthy of support - panelist aren't supposed to make those judgements (so is this the program officers?). Anyway, I would bet, if a survey of all granting agencies was done - that the reviews to males vs females with substantial funding -regarding being 'over-committed' vs 'not enough $$ to go around' - would fall out on gender lines.

Regarding stealing ideas - I have had this happen to a (male) colleague/friend of mine in a fairly direct way. I'm sure that it happens...we all know people out there walking around without much integrity. Scientists included.

skookumchick said...

Stick to your guns w.r.t. the wretched summer teaching! Supportive vibes coming from afar!

Zeynel said...


In terms of contributing to sum total of human knowledge by your research it doesn't matter if a female or a male professor made the contribution. In any case, I think you are a great writer. I enjoy reading your posts. It is so rare for an academic to also write well. Good luck with funding.

Ms.PhD said...

That sucks.

I do think men tend to accuse women of being 'unfocused' as a gender-related slight. I got that one from one of my advisors, and he always said it with a sneer.

But here's a not-so-gender related possible spin on it:

Would the research in this proposal take you further outside your usual research area? It takes more resources, time and energy to spread yourself across multiple topics.

Do you have sufficient students/staff to cover all these projects? Or are you proposing to recruit new (as yet unidentified) people to work on it?

Something I've noticed lately seems to be a common problem with research groups as they mature. Some of the original problems are solved over time, so the research branches out. This should be a good thing, as we don't want people getting stuck in ruts.

But if you get to the point where almost everyone in the group is working on their own project in isolation, with only the most tenuous connection to everyone else, it's not really a group anymore. The PI has a much harder time keeping up, the people in the group start to flounder for lack of guidance, and the costs go up because everyone needs different things and can't share. It all goes downhill from there.

I don't know if this applies to you at all. If it doesn't, then you might want to emphasize how this project fits in with the overall (and already existing and successful) research goals of your group. Then it would seem more obvious that you're not overcommitted, but the research you're proposing would complement, and be complemented by, the other research already going on in your group.

Synergy, blah blah blah. You know, that miraculous thing that happens when good people get money to work with other good people on good ideas.

But maybe you did all of that already, and they're just looking for a lame excuse not to fund you. My impression lately is that a lot of good proposals are not getting funded because money is so tight, that politics end up winning. Then they have to pull some bullshit excuse out of their collective ass, because they have to justify the score. If that's the case, you can ignore that particular comment, fix up whatever else can be fixed, and roll the dice again.

I'm just jealous you have time to write grants. Lately blogging- and reading your blog- are the only break I get from work. Writing grants would be a lark if I had time and a place to sit at a desk and think about science.

Anonymous said...

As a reviewer for both NIH and NSF, with funding at the current level, I do consider how many other funded projects the person has, regardless of their gender. However, we are not officially allowed to do so, so speaking about over-committment may be the reviewers way of sending you the message that there is just not enough money to go around without actually saying so.

Douglas Natelson said...

FWIW, I've had essentially the same comment directed at me, so I don't think it's necessarily a gender thing. I didn't like it either - the implication is that the reviewer doesn't think I can keep all the balls in the air. Obviously I wouldn't ask for the money if I didn't think I could handle the project....