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My partner and I live in different countries, and we have been discussing a research topic for some time but have had difficulty making progress due to the distance, local responsibilities, etc. We have recently found a visiting researcher grant that would allow me to visit her for a couple months and work exclusively on our project. We would both continue to receive salaries from our respective institutions (the grant requires this), and we plan to request only enough funding for travel and basic living expenses (i.e., a round-trip flight, daily meals, and daily transport; the latter two, because her country is more expensive than mine).

Are there any ethical issues with us applying for such a grant? We do not, for example, plan to request housing funds, since I will stay with her. We are not sure whether we should disclose our relationship status in the application, because it's a small grant, and it could be seen as distracting or superfluous information. (See also the discussion under @DanRomik's answer.)

Edit: to be clear, we are each qualified in our fields to carry out such a project. Indeed, we've already been carrying out the project, but at a slow pace, and the main goal is to have a couple months of focused effort on the project.

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    Kudos for thinking of ethics before you do it. Well done you. – puppetsock Dec 17 '19 at 14:05
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    @puppetsockreinstateMonica I'm only in it for the kudos. And the fake SE points. But mostly the kudos. – artificial_moonlet Dec 17 '19 at 20:39
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    Hmmm. Withholding all kudos, kiddo. ;-) – Buffy Dec 17 '19 at 21:05
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Provided you are qualified and intend to do a good job under the grant, I see no ethical considerations at all. Many people (most?) applying for grants in other countries have a variety of goals, not all of which are relevant to the position itself. Wanting to live in Paris is pretty common, I'd guess.

There would be an issue if she is the decision maker on who gets the grant. In such a case she should recuse from the decision and pass it to others, such as a superior. But otherwise, there should be no problem.

  • Would you then say this person should apply for funding to pay half the rent? – Dawn Dec 17 '19 at 18:37
  • @Dawn, paying the rent is a personal matter. Applying for additional funding just to pay rent, might raise other ethical issues. Not enough to decide here, I think. – Buffy Dec 17 '19 at 19:09
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    Neither I nor my girlfriend is part of the decision-making process-- it's a national grant, more important people give the final yay or nay. And it may be a flat amount of money we receive, regardless of the housing situation. I figured we should at least mention we don't need it, perhaps increase our chances of getting something. – artificial_moonlet Dec 17 '19 at 20:38
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    I doubt that mentioning it would matter. It should be awarded on the merits only. – Buffy Dec 17 '19 at 20:43
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    I agree with this answer, but I think you should disclose your relationship - if you're qualified then you should still get the grant and it removes any possibility of any complains being raised after the fact – Bee Dec 19 '19 at 12:04
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There is the issue of propriety, and there is the somewhat separate issue of the appearance of propriety. Although I agree with @Buffy that from an ethical point of view all that really matters is that you are applying for the grant in good faith with the intention of actually carrying out the research you are proposing, the fact that the intended research is with your significant other certainly has the potential to create the appearance that, at the very least, you are mixing your personal interests with your stated professional goals in a somewhat unhealthy and perhaps ethically compromised way (and no, it’s not really comparable to “wanting to live in Paris” as in Buffy’s example - as evidenced for example by the fact that you were concerned enough about doing this to ask this question). And at worst, some observers who learn of this may be inclined to assume an unethical motivation and regard this as a (perhaps mild) form of abuse of the grant funding system. Whether they are correct or not is besides the point; people sometimes jump to incorrect conclusions, and you should protect your reputation.

My advice is to disclose the relationship and let the people in charge of the grant decide if this is a problem or not. If they are okay with it, no one can fault you for accepting the funding — you have a watertight defense in case someone down the road criticizes your actions. And if they aren’t, well, there’s a pretty strong case to be made that hiding that information with the intent of increasing your chances of receiving the funding would have been somewhat unethical. It’s maybe in a gray area of things that people do once in a while and usually get away with, but I wouldn’t recommend it, both because it’s ethically problematic and so you can sleep better at night.

Edit: your edit to the question, and some of your comments, give me the impression that you read my answer as questioning your motivation or criticizing you in some way. Let me be clear, I see no reason at all to question that your motivation is pure.

With that being said, you asked “are there any ethical issues”, and frankly there are some “ethical issues” with doing something that, while you privately know it is ethical, can lead other people to think that you are doing something that may not be ethical. As I said in a comment, we live in a world in which grant funding, and other taxpayer-funded resources, do get abused sometimes. By behaving in ways that other people may perceive as unethical, you risk hurting your own reputation and career, and also push the delicate equilibrium many parts of our societies are built on in a direction that (ever so slightly) encourages genuinely unethical behavior by other people in the future. Conversely, by disclosing the relationship you will be enforcing norms of good governance. From a social point of view, you will be helping academia function a little bit better.

It’s fine if you disagree with any of this, but talking about “tuning out” because of “judgmental glares” misses the point of what I’m saying. I welcome any sort of critique of my logic and reasoning as long as it’s itself based on logic and not on emotional arguments like you being annoyed about people being judgmental. For example, Buffy’s argument that society is better off if grant applicants are not turned down because of wanting to work with their significant others is a valid one (not completely compelling in my opinion, but at least valid, and based on logic).

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    @Buffy that’s their decision to make. – Dan Romik Dec 17 '19 at 21:02
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    @artificial_moonlet I don’t know what you mean by “meta”. I don’t think it’s meta at all. We live in a world where grant funding, and other types of official resources and power, do get abused sometimes (as anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock recently is aware), so any “judgmental glares” would in fact be based on a completely reasonable premise. If you don’t care, that’s your right, but the fact that you asked the question suggests you do care at least a little bit. About your follow up questions: ... – Dan Romik Dec 17 '19 at 21:11
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    ... 1. I didn’t say that I consider your grant idea improper, so “would you consider that improper as well” is a loaded question. In any case, with platonic friends I think any concerns about appearances would be lessened, to the extent that my advice about disclosing the relationship would probably be different. – Dan Romik Dec 17 '19 at 21:12
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    2. You said you are not sure about whether you should disclose the relationship. The only reason to not disclose it would be to increase the chances of getting the funding (by eliminating the possibility that you will be denied the funding on some kind of technical grounds because of your relationship with your collaborator). So I don’t really understand the question. If I misunderstood, perhaps you should clarify why you are hesitant about disclosing the relationship. – Dan Romik Dec 17 '19 at 21:17
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    @artificial_moonlet see my edit. Yes, I think you should disclose the relationship. And I don’t care who you sleep with, I meant propriety in the ethics sense, not in a sense of puritanism or anything related to that. – Dan Romik Dec 17 '19 at 21:41
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Based on personal experience, I don't feel that there are any ethical violations in simply applying for a grant with a significant other, and I certainly don't feel that you are required to disclose this information in your application. I am aware of many academic "power-couples" in my field that co-PI large projects, including projects on federally-funded grants. I have read the entirety of a few of these proposals, and I have never seen indication that the collaborators are married/partners, including those who have different last names. In fact, as a reviewer, I would find this information extraneous, distracting, and even unprofessional, especially if you have a strong track record of collaborative work together already.

Where I DO feel that there are ethical issues is if a collaborator includes their significant other on grant proposals, student committees, or papers when they did not/will not contribute substantially. For example, if a graduate advisor forces their student to put their spouse on their graduate committee to help the spouse achieve tenure requirements. These are examples of nepotism that definitely raise ethical issues.

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