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I received a request from the sponsored projects office person at a well known university, asking me to peer review a grant proposal that was in preparation at their university. The idea was for me to help their researchers to write a more successful grant proposal. I felt that it was something of an abuse for them to even ask me, and they were damaging their university's reputation by making such requests of people. They wrote back to correct what they termed my inaccurate and/or disagreeable assumptions and conclusions. They said in effect that I am a bad academic citizen for not being willing to help them with this.

My questions: Is this a reasonable thing for universities to ask? Or is it unreasonable or even damaging to their reputation to be soliciting this kind of help?

[Edited for length. If you want to see the original email exchange, look at the edit history.]

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    By the way, I know that copyright law does not allow me to post these emails without the permission of the sender. I am posting them with the explicit permission of [Second unnamed officer], who is also interested in knowing what other faculty think about this. – Nathan Reading Oct 9 at 20:28
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    Would you be paid (didn't read it deeply enough - too long)? Is it likely you would be called on by the funding agency to do a formal review. That would set up a conflict of interest (or an attempt to keep you out of the formal process, which is worse). Contracting for reviews seems ok to me as long as the contractor isn't involved in the formal process. – Buffy Oct 9 at 20:33
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    This question really doesn't need the whole email exchange – Azor Ahai Oct 9 at 20:44
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    I suggest Azor is right. You should shorten your question to one paragraph. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 9 at 23:36
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    This does indeed sound like a university asking employees of its competitors to help it win a greater proportion of available funding.... Interesting question, but I agree with the others that it might be better to summarize what you were asked rather than copy/pasting the whole emails. – Flyto Oct 9 at 23:40
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Science, and academia more broadly, is and should be a community effort. Of course, we should all work to support the common cause of advancing and disseminating knowledge.

Science funding is a different story. Funding agencies establish a competitive process for different researchers or groups of researchers. It is hard for me to imagine any good alternative to a competitive process for funding, but we can't deny that any specific funding competition is a zero-sum game.

Thus we as scientists unavoidably relate to each other in two fundamentally different ways: As collaborators in a global scientific quest and as competitors. (It's not just funding that forces this on us: For example, we also unavoidably compete for job opportunities.)

Universities have a direct financial interest in having their researchers win competitions for grants. So they put resources into improving their researchers' grant proposals. One can't fault them for doing so.

But we should be candid about what the universities are specifically trying to do when they put resources into improving their own grant proposals: They are trying to win more grants. If they also contribute to the global effort of scientific research because grant proposals get better, great, but that beneficial effect is better understood as arising directly from the competitive process.

If [Unnamed university] wins more grants, then undeniably, some other institution wins fewer grants. That is the university's goal, and specifically the goal of [A particular Office at Unnamed university]. But that is not my goal, and in fact opposed to my goal with respect to funding competitions.

I object to being asked to help [Unnamed university] win more grants, and I strongly object to the insinuation that, because I object, I am not a good citizen of the scientific community. It appears to me (through very unscientific departmental-lounge polling) that others agree with me. The reputation of [Unnamed university] has suffered greatly in my eyes because of this issue, and if, as I suspect, others feel the same way, [Unnamed university] is hurting its own reputation more broadly by acting in this way.

  • I do think the outsourcing of red-team review is unusual, but if they were offering to pay you as an outside consultant would you be so insulted? I think you're taking it too far when you see their reputation as suffering greatly. – jakebeal Oct 16 at 3:03
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    Offering to pay would at least be recognizing that this kind of thing is not "service to the scientific community". But the conflict of interest issues raised here suggest that doing it for pay is problematic. Maybe reputation doesn't suffer greatly. But are a lot of people left with a bad taste in their mouth as I was? Several of the answers (seemingly the majority) here label the request as "improper" or "odd" or "problematic", so I'm not the only one who thinks they ought not to be doing this. That can't be a good thing for their university. – Nathan Reading Oct 16 at 10:29
  • I'd absolutely be onboard with disliking the behavior of the sponsored projects office that contacted you. The rest of the institution is way bigger than that, however, and the actual researchers may have little or no control over that office. – jakebeal Oct 16 at 11:27
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It does strike me that this is an improper request to make of active faculty at a different university, for reasons much as you say: funding is a competition, and you have your own people (and yourself) to look after.

If you were retired, and disengaged from the university at which you'd worked, sure, why not take a larger view? "A rising tide lifts all boats", and all that.

But, while you are "still in the game", it literally is that your competitors (or your students' or colleagues' competitors) are asking you for "insider information", in effect. Considering that universities' administrations visibly do not care so much about altruistic "greater good", but about external funding dollars, to consult externally in such a manner is obviously construable as sabotaging your own students, colleagues, department, and university.

It is completely unsurprising that the reaction to your objection was on the order of "oh, come on, you're being a selfish jerk". Because they'd like to bully you into helping them, etc. No-brainer.

Sure, if they can swindle people into helping their own competition, they have greatly succeeded, and will be happy. They have zero motivation to not do it, because (as you saw) they can package it as some mythical "greater good" thing, even while screwing over their competitors, whenever possible.

Probably the larger point is that to engage with people embarked on such projects is futile and inevitably frustrating, because they've already made certain decisions, which often seem to include rationalizations about how exploiting/cheating other people is simply "good business" or is "clever" or ... something.

So your only serious error is to engage with them and spend time and mental energy! :) Don't let opportunistic jerks fool you!

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    The implication of this answer is that it would be more proper if the request came from the university that you were employed by. Note that colleagues at different departments at your university are as much competitors as colleagues at other universities. In some sense more so, since you typically are also competing for the University's resources, and helping them will strengthen their position to do so. – mmeent Oct 10 at 9:11
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The odd aspect here, is that this request comes to you from grant support office of the other university, rather than the researchers themselves.

It is perfectly normal to ask colleagues at other universities for feedback on your grant proposals. I regularly supply such feedback for colleagues. Why do this when there is a finite pot of grant money.

  • First of all, this is just being nice to people. Being nice has benefits of its own, in that people will be more likely to be willing to help you when you would need it in the future.

  • Second, typically the researchers you will be helping are part of the same (sub)field of research as you. By helping, them you are essentially helping your (sub)field to take a larger slice of the funding pot. There are many ways this can be helpful to you in the future. (Job/hiring opportunities, increased funding opportunities, etc.)

Of course, this makes little sense if you yourself fishing in that particular funding pot. In which case, you have a good reason to deny such requests.

The really strange aspect in this case, is that the request came from the grant support office at the other university. This almost completely negates the first list reason to comply with requests for feedback, as it diminishes the networking aspect. The second reason may or may not exist, but the fact the request did not come from the researchers directly implies that you did not already have a professional relationship with them, which reduces the likelihood that they are in the same (sub)field.

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    Yes, this is an institutional effort from the grant support office. The initial email said that "[Unnamed university] provides a grant proposal peer review service for its faculty, which recruits subject matter experts to objectively evaluate grant proposals prior to their submission." That immediately bothered me, because they are not providing anything except the service of asking me to provide a large amount of time. You're right: If a colleague had reached out to me about this, I would indeed have felt differently. – Nathan Reading Oct 11 at 15:10
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Let me give a scenario in which it would be proper. I would be skeptical of other scenarios that aren't essentially similar.

Suppose that I'm an experienced grant writer but am now retired. Suppose also that I'm not an active reviewer for funding agencies, though have done so in the past. I have a lot of knowledge that it would be good to pass on.

Suppose a university, either the one I've retired from or any other, approaches me with a proposal to train their young researchers and to help them actively by reviewing a current proposal and giving feedback and advice on it. Suppose they also offer to pay me a non-token amount for my efforts.

I would think that, then, it would be fine to agree. This is really no different from a commercial company asking me to train their employees in some state of the art technology for which they need advice. As with the company you have to remove the possibility of a conflict of interest.

If I were not yet retired, then it gets a bit sticky. If it were my own university and I was "paid" by having other duties reduced for a while, then fine.

If it is another university and I'm not retired then it is even stickier. To do a decent job of it takes time and effort, which should be compensated. But it is also very difficult to avoid conflict of interest scenarios.

And, for an active faculty member, especially one who is still developing grant proposals or who is reviewing for agencies it becomes ethically "interesting", to say the least.

Among other issues, the requesting university would probably want a "non disclosure agreement" for the work. What effect might that have on your own research program?

If I review a grant informally and offer improvements and then am asked to review it formally on behalf of an agency, I have a conflict. I would ethically have to decline the formal review. The worst case is one in which the one asking for this service initially is actually trying to create such a conflict, guaranteeing that I could not be a formal reviewer - an attempt to take me out of the picture. I don't suggest that this is what is going on in this specific case, but it would put a cloud over the whole practice.

So, I think that most scenarios are problematic. It is very different from the normal practice of reviewing papers, because reviewing is done on behalf of a third party: the journal or conference.

And it is also different from informal cross-reviewing of papers within a circle of collaborators as it becomes a cooperative venture in that case.

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    These are good points. In my specific situation, I am an active researcher, still applying for grants. The grant I was asked to help with was for a math REU (research experience for undergraduates). So it wasn't in competition with my own research grant application, but our math department does have an REU program, so it is in competition. (I'm not sure whether our math REU grant was up for renewal this year.) – Nathan Reading Oct 10 at 0:26
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    Actually, in this particular case, I suspect it might be very slightly in Nathan's self-interest to help. The REU grant competition is, as I understand it, conducted across mathematics as a whole. Hence, hyperbolic geometric topology projects are competing against numerical elliptic PDE projects. If you're a hyperbolic geometric topologist, it helps you if there are more grants in hyperbolic geometric topology, since your students and postdocs are more likely to get jobs, your papers get more citations, et c. Mathematical subfields are small and function as a circle of collaborators. – Alexander Woo Oct 10 at 7:31
  • @AlexanderWoo: That's a good point, which I hadn't thought of. It was indeed a combinatorics REU, and (as you know) I do combinatorics. But I wonder if panels really reward the best proposals without regard to subfields? Possibly they do, but only up to some limit (i.e. at some point, someone says "that's too many combinatorics REUs"). So by helping this REU, I may or may not be working against other combinatorics REUs. But in any case, I might be working against my own institution's REU program. – Nathan Reading Oct 10 at 19:37
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You‘ve reached the correct conclusion, that you have no obligation to help researchers at another university improve their grant proposals and that you have better things to do with your time, but based on incorrect reasoning that it is unreasonable and abusive for the other university to ask for your help.

It is reasonable (though probably pointless, as I suspect they will soon discover) for them to ask, and it is more than reasonable for you to say no. That’s all there is to the story really.

As for the suggestion that they are “abusing the system”, to the very minor extent that there is an abuse here, it is a self-limiting type of abuse — a bit similarly to a beggar standing on a street corner asking for money. Some people may give them money, and that is their prerogative; you certainly don’t have to if you don’t want to.

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    Yes, maybe "abuse" was the wrong word. In a purely social situation, when someone makes inappropriate requests, we might say that they are "imposing on" someone. And some people, because of specific social situations may find themselves unable to say no to someone who is imposing on them. Similarly, while I certainly am in a position to say no easily, one can imagine scenarios where someone feels real pressure to say yes to this kind of request. – Nathan Reading Oct 10 at 12:36

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