Five competing proposals lost, four quietly. But scientists in a consortium of universities in quake-prone California, led by UCBerkeley, grumbled in public.
"In this case, peer review failed miserably," said Linda Royster, a spokeswoman for Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), who has led an effort by the California delegation to persuade NSF to reconsider the grant. Next month the General Accounting Office is expected to complete its investigation into charges of age discrimination by the reviewers, plagiarism in the application, and insufficient expertise among those who evaluated the proposals.
What the California group didn't do was file a formal appeal. Few scientists turned down by the grants process do. The formal appeals process, at both NSF and the National Institutes of Health, is one of the best-kept secrets in the scientific community. And science administrators seem content to leave it that way.
Swallow and Try Again
After talking with another scientist with a pending appeal, however, Iwan and his colleagues decided not to pursue the matter. "There's a real question of whether it's worth alienating the [NSF] program managers," Iwan said. "These are people you may have to deal with for the rest of your career. Most researchers would rather swallow it and try again."
In fact, according to NSF's policy manual, California's application to create an earthquake engineering center cannot be appealed because it was reviewed by the National Science Board, the agency's policy-making body and final arbiter on such matters. The board examines all grants exceeding $1.5 million a year, or more than $6 million over five years, as well as grants for new programs.
NSF did conduct an internal audit of the review process which "found no evidence of bias," said Jerome Fregeau, director of the audit and oversight division. However, a letter on the matter from Director Erich Bloch to the New York consortium criticized the unattributed use in its application of material from another scientist.
'It's a Sham'
That's a path one West Coast scientist, who requested anonymity while his appeal is pending, is now traveling.
"It looks all right on paper," said the scientist, who has previously received NSF grants for work in the same field, "[but] it's a sham the way it's carried out. If [program managers] don't want to fund your proposal, they will select reviewers who will give it unfavorable reviews."
From 1982 to 1986, NSF received 144,671 research proposals and rejected 82,114 (57 percent) of them. But only 232 of the rejected investigators—about 0.3 percent— sought reconsideration through the three-step appeals process. And only nine won their appeals.
"There's an incredible amount of loyalty in the scientific community," observed Kristine Iverson, a staff member of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, which oversees NSF's budget. Iverson said most scientists who fail to win a grant assume there was a flaw in their proposal.
Microbiologist Rita R. Colwell, vice president of academic affairs at the University of Maryland and a member of the National Science Board, believes the peer review and appeals processes are healthy. "I hate to sound Pollyannaish, [but] I do not know of any whimsical, Capricious or unfair decision made in my long experience at NSF and NIH.
"I'm a seasoned researcher, and on occasion my grants get turned down, too," Colwell said. "I talk to the program manager, revise the proposal, submit it and usually get funded. I've known people who've revised and resubmitted three and four times, then finally got funded."
Another Senate staffer, who has dealt closely with NSF matters and who requested anonymity, believes federal science agencies should publicize their appeal avenues more. "It is a little-known process, so it's seldom used. For example, it's not appended to proposal applications," he said.
Mary E. Clutter, senior science adviser to NSF Director Erich Bloch, said the appeals process is publicized sufficiently. It is mentioned in the 32-page brochure, "Grants for Research and Education in Science and Engineering," which serves as a primer for NSF grant applicants. "I guess we could add a paragraph" about the process to the rejection letters the agency sends out, Clutter said, "but the best thing a PI [principal investigator] can do is take the comments, strengthen the proposal, and resubmit it."
Fear of Overload
"The central issue is there's not enough money to fund even the really superlative projects," she said. Roughly 20 percent of new applicants receive money, she said, but another 30 percent that are "clearly worthy" do not. (About one-half of NSF's grants each year are renewals for projects that expect long-term funding but must pass review each year.)
At the National Institutes of Health, about two-thirds of the more than 19,000 proposals submitted last year did not receive money. But only a small number— 1,963 of the 12,970 last year, for example—were rejected outright by peer review panels. There were about 10 formal appeals last year, according to NIH Appeals Officer Zora J. Griffo, who said her office does not compile official statistics on the process; three were successful. NSF and NIH officials declined to provide details of either successful or unsuccessful appeals, citing privacy laws.
The fact that the great majority of unsuccessful NIH applicants fall into the category of "approved but not funded" is only one of several factors that works to hold down the number of possible appeals. As Griffo explained, "the decision to fund is made post-review. And it is definitely not appealable." The process also requires an investigator's university or institution to sign the appeal, and it stipulates that any application undergoing appeal is ineligible for funding, in effect postponing it until the next funding cycle.
NIH officials, like their NSF counterparts, defend the present system and see no need to open up the process. Jerome G. Green, director of NIH's Research Grants Division, said some rejected researchers write to say, "I don't agree with the judgment of those reviewers; therefore, those reviewers are not really competent to judge my science."
"Now that's a leap in logic which often is not the case … The fact is that the applicant just hasn't convinced [the study panel] that he's got a red-hot idea."
Iverson believes the tiny number of appeals is related to an applicant's image as a scientist. "As a Ph.D. chemist, say, for me to say these people [peer reviewers] weren't making intelligent judgments, that reflects on me the next time I'm going to be asked to peer-review something, or be on a panel or conduct a seminar. To repudiate the process, to say that one's own colleagues have been unfair, amounts to some extent to repudiating oneself."