Grant review: best proposal or most needy scientist?

Budding scientists hard at work on their posters.

In a few short hours I read nine proposals from graduate students interested in funding for their research. Because this was a focused call, they were largely similar. They all involved field work, natural history, and queries into the relationship of humans and their environment. But they varied in all the details, some including more anthropology and archaeology, others more systematics, or ecology, others behavior and economics. Some had simple techniques and others more complex ones. The questions asked varied and were all more empirical than conceptual. I wanted to fund all of them, but we could fund only one or two.

How could I rank them? Why should it be so hard? After all, I had their resumés, their letters of recommendation, and detailed proposals that included budgets. Some were clearly more polished than others. Some students had already published or attended scientific meetings. The letters of recommendation were not from people from the USA and so had a different tone, one I found harder to parse.

But my real problem was not any of these. It was that what I really wanted to know was where the funding dollars would do the most good. If I could answer that question, then whom to fund should be clear. But this brought up another question, how to define the most good. Assuming I could judge these things, it could be the best person, the best proposal, or the most needy person. Ideally, it would have to be a mix of these to make the most difference to science. A stellar person who also had other funds might not be the best choice. Likewise, a very needy researcher whose proposal was very weak might not be a good choice either. What I wanted to identify was the person for whom these funds could really make a difference, someone for whom these modest funds could launch a career.

Isn’t where the funds can do the most good a worthy goal for all funding decisions? I think it should be. Now I will digress from my recent experience to that with which I am most familiar, the US National Science Foundation. My sense is that what we do on panel there is judge the best science and the best broader impacts. But this does not mean that the other things are not considered. It just means that it is more efficient and accurate to separate judging the science from judging other things. That is why the panels do not make final decisions. I totally agree with this. After all, what if there were no proposals from say 10 states (you pick) that were scientifically as high as the ones from Harvard? Would it make sense for us as a nation to just fund Harvard and never fund those other states? I say no. For that would mean a promising students from, say Alabama, would have no opportunity to be exposed to teaching and research from someone with NSF funding. It would reinforce our already too strong class structure and be bad for a nation that wants excellence from all regions.
Continuing along the line of considering our national funding agencies, I do not think it is best for our nation to put NSF and NIH funds into the hands of a few. I think it is horrible that one person can receive many NIH grants, for example. It is bad for discovering the best science, bad for encouraging the most scientists, bad for discovering the best ways of dealing with our human predicament. What the limit should be in these days of collaborative science might be complex, but that is a solvable question once the principle is accepted.I think the earlier people are in the education spectrum, the less we should judge and the more we should encourage. I think science fairs for kids that pick nationwide winners are a joke. They reward access to labs as much as anything. At the grad student level, I am also in favor of smaller grants for more people.So I ranked the nine proposals and the nine proposers since I had to. I hope they all shine.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Awards and prizes, Graduate school, Grant proposals, Grants, NSF and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Grant review: best proposal or most needy scientist?

  1. Your post is fascinating. The idea of ‘the most good’ is something I explored in my most recent post about Pope Francis’s Encyclical (link to my blog: – I think you’d enjoy it (also, any feedback would be amazing).

    Thanks and have a great day,


  2. µ says:

    Good post. I agree with “at the grad student level, I am also in favor of smaller grants for more people”. For NSF-DDIGs, $10k could be adequate for improving the average PhD thesis (funding for an improvement, not for the entire thesis), rather than the typical $15-20k that most students ask for.

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