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I talked with some colleagues and it seems that the review process for most grants proposals (NSF, NIH,etc) are taking months (~6). This is probably not helpful for science and innovation. I understand that reviewers are busy people but papers submitted for a conference would usually not take more than 2 months to be reviewed. And some reviews that I read for conferences are even much better than grant proposal reviews.

Are there any reasons or benefits that grant proposals are taking long time?

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    There is more at stake. If you make an error with a conference admission than an uninteresting conference talk will happen. If you make an error in a grant proposal a couple of million euros/dollars/... (depending on the field and type of grant) are thrown down the drain. – Maarten Buis Mar 9 '18 at 13:09
  • @MaartenBuis true, assuming the reviews for a grant proposal are much better than a conference which is not always the case. Also, funding agencies can reject the weak proposals early and spend more time with the top submitted proposals. – Thomas Lee Mar 9 '18 at 13:17
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    Also note that, under a Continuing Resolution (assumed US since NSF and NIH are called out), there may well be uncertainty about what the actual budget will be, so grant awards are being delayed. – Jon Custer Mar 9 '18 at 14:54
  • I think part of the problem might be that reviewers are not paid, if there were people only paid to review grants the process would be quicker. Some NSF can take up to a year. – Herman Toothrot Mar 11 '18 at 17:19
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    Not only do months get wasted on the process of grant review, but applicants waste months writing the grant proposals in the first place. Casual observation suggests that much funded research is of dubious quality and most grant proposals are over-inflated mis-selling. One has to wonder whether it wouldn't be more efficient just to distribute the money by some other means (e.g., randomly, as a reward for publication in top outlets, or uniformly across academics). – Ubiquitous Mar 18 '18 at 10:58
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+50

These are two fundamentally different processes. About the only thing they share is that they're both competitive processes important to academics.

Why does funding evaluation take so long? Think about the process from the perspective of a NSF program manager. Let's say you get 600-700 proposals for a single program (not an exaggeration). First thing you have to do is to deal with the logistics of partitioning proposals across your team of PMs on the program. Then work on classifying proposals into distinctive subgroups for review by panels with expertise on the specific subtopic (e.g. imagine the # of subareas included in a general call for computer security like SaTC). Then once you've got the dates, you need to solicit volunteer panelists or identify names, then filter for conflicts of interest across programs (i.e. did they submit a small SaTC proposal this cycle). Then you send out invites and hope they can accept and be there for a specific panel on a specific date. Repeat until you've got enough experts for each panel, and there are likely to be 30+ panels to organize (assuming an average of 20 proposals per panel).

Just the time to hold the panels will be significant. Each panel takes 2 days, and each PM can do at most 2 panels per week. You can maybe double up a bit, but you're still looking at 10+ weeks for the panels alone. Then process paperwork and aggregate results, deal w/ consistency issues, then make recommendations. Then wait for paperwork approving funding amounts. Then you're close to notifying the PIs.

Compare this to chairing a conference, where the PC selection, TPC meeting dates and logistics are all done way ahead of the paper submission dates. You know who will review which papers, who will be at the TPC meeting, and there is no further approval necessary once the PC chairs finalize decisions after the PC meeting. Having chaired a few conferences, I can tell you that the PC selection/invite process, and logistics of the PC meeting, can easily take up to 2-3 months. That alone accounts for most of the difference, not even considering post panel approval and funding paperwork.

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The processes for grants and papers are very different. Once the editor or programming committee has reached a decision, there’s not much left to do.

Grants are much tougher. After the decision by the panel has been reached, there are several additional levels of bureaucratic approval that must be secured before a grant can be formally awarded. It’s these latter stages that lead to the extended time between submission and decision.

  • Ok, then why they don't notify the rejected proposals soon? – Thomas Lee Mar 10 '18 at 17:45
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    That’s at the discretion of the grant agency how to handle it. Note that panels don’t make yes-no decisions—just recommendations for what should be funded. If suddenly additional funding becomes available, more grants might be approved. It’s better to wait until the decisions are fully made rather than reject something early and not be able to fund it later if circumstances change. – aeismail Mar 10 '18 at 17:48
  • @aeismail this is nice comment, it should be included in the answer on differences between paper reviewers and grant reviewers. – SSimon Mar 15 '18 at 11:33

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