How to hold an NSF panel hostage

Ever get a panel summary back on one of your grants that has spelling mistakes or looks like it was rushed? WTF, right? I mean, can't these people take the time to tell you how to improve our proposal that they didn't like enough to fund?

Here's the thing, it may very well have been written under pressure while two people waited with bags packed and flights to catch looking over the writer's shoulder.

Let me back up for a second and explain part of the process I didn't understand before this week. I thought that the POs were the ones writing the panel summaries. I don't know why, but that was my impression. I figured they took detailed notes and wrote it all up before reading it back to an attentive panel while the solemnly nodded their heads. Not so much.

The POs do write detailed notes that they use later, but the panel summaries are written by one of the three panelists assigned to your proposal. Those three people are the only ones in the room who have read the proposal and the panel summary is based on the discussion between those people, with the ad hoc reviews taken under consideration. The scribe (in our case, the primary reviewer) then summarizes all the information and includes suggestions to improve the proposal. Once they are done, the other two panelists assigned to the proposal have to read and approve it before it goes to the POs for final approval.

That all sounds well and good, but when do those summaries get written? Well, if you are lucky they get written during one of the first two days while grants that the scribe is not assigned to are being discussed. Ever tried to write a summary of several people's thoughts while an unrelated (and possibly heated) conversation is going on around you? Not so easy.

If you are not lucky, the scribe for your proposal has waited until the last day to even start your summary. Although panelists can change their flights to earlier ones if the panel finishes early (and they often get done around lunch on the third day instead of going all the way until 5:00), no one leaves the room until they sign off on every proposal they are assigned to. That means that even if the proposals you are scribe for are all done, you still have to wait for all of the proposals that you read to be written up by the other scribes. One person, therefore, can keep 6-8 others in the room twiddling their thumbs just because they waited to start their summaries until the last minute. Sometimes, we're talking a couple hours.

You might imagine that those who are waiting against their will with flights to catch could be A) rather "encouraging" of the scribes to get their summaries done, and B) unlikely to do much editing of the summary once it is finally submitted for their approval. This can mean that your panel summary is less useful than it could be if someone who didn't wait until the last minute had prepared it.

Yet one more way a single person can have a major impact on the success of your proposal.

5 responses so far

  • Odyssey says:

    We had a scribe like that on our panel. There were some seriously pissed panelists...

  • MZ says:

    Good point. This is one of the many reasons for calling up a program officer to discuss your proposal if it's not funded, and for not trying to deconstruct the panel summary as though it is the Rosetta Stone. As long as you are not accusatory (and avoid audible sobbing), program officers are generally happy to tell you their take on your proposal and give you more detailed information on what's needed. Good "code word" questions to ask include, "Which comments should I particularly focus on in my revision?" which really means, "Tell me what I can disregard because the panelist was in a hurry and felt they had to say something, anything".

  • anon says:

    That explains a lot. Thanks. I've had panel summaries that were only one or two fucking useless lines. I couldn't believe that's all they had to say, especially with the line "panelists read and approved the summary".

  • Eli Rabett says:

    You missed something important here, the PO has to approve the summary. So generally what happens is that the three readers agree and ship it off to the PO, the PO then makes comments, usually about what can't be said, and the panel modifies. In most cases the PO will not accept a few lines because the PO then has no defense when you call and scream. If there are just a couple of lines something else went on.

  • [...] comments were made in discussion that did not make the summary. Sometimes those things are written under a certain amount of "duress". However, I have had the most success with proposals when I have asked the PO what they think it [...]

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