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I proposed to work on a problem in the proposal, but one of the referees thought that the problem had already been solved in some previous papers. However, the papers they cited do not solve the proposed problem, not even close. This has been confirmed by my colleagues.

The referee themselves meant no harm, because they strongly recommended funding the proposal anyway. I believe it was just an honest mistake without serious thinking. But the decision committee took this comment quite seriously (well, I think they should), and they rejected my proposal.

What could be done in this situation?

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    Can you explain "well, I think they should" as that is unclear to me. Did the committee report specifically mention this concern of the referee? – Terry Loring Jun 6 at 17:06
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    Yes, the committee report specifically mentioned this concern. But I imagine the committee members are no experts, so I think they should believe the referee. Assuming that the referee was right, it would indeed be a serious problem of my proposal. I believe that it is not the committee's job to recognize the mistake of the referee. – Hao Chen Jun 6 at 17:09
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    How could the referee still recommend the research proposal if he thinks it was done before. This is mind boggling. – lalala Jun 7 at 4:30
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    @lalala Perhaps the problem that the referee thought had already been solved was just one of several problems that the proposal discussed. – nanoman Jun 7 at 5:37
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What you do is improve the proposal, so that the next time you submit it somewhere, the reviewers will not make the same kind of mistake. That's really all you can do. For proposals submitted to government agencies, there are generally formal appeals process, but those processes exist to protest against egregious conflicts of interest or other procedural errors. They are not designed or intended to deal with disagreements about the academic merit of a proposal, as determined by the reviewers and program officers.

It can be extremely frustrating when a reviewer misunderstands your proposal or mistakenly discounts its importance. However, you should bear in mind that the fact that the scope and significance of your proposal were misunderstood by a reviewer indicates that the exposition in the proposal was probably not as clear as it could have been—making the reviewer's misunderstanding possible.* The situation is very similar to what happens with peer review for submitted manuscripts (although the stakes are higher for grant proposals). In either case—and, indeed, in scientific communication more generally—you are very frequently going to be addressing readers and interlocutors who are not experts intimately familiar with the area of your research. It is now incumbent upon you to improve your presentation so that the next reviewer will not have the same misunderstanding. So the next time you submit this proposal, to the same funder or somewhere else, you know that you can add a clarification to avoid repeating the misunderstanding: something like, "Although it may appear that this question was resolved in Refs. [6—8], the general problem still remains open, because...." Of course, if you wish, you can forgo this kind of editing before you resubmit, but that is at your own risk.

*As xkcd has noted, communicating is never an activity that just involves one person.

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  • If I am writing comments in personal software code that only I will ever see, that is communicating to my future self, which is important and challenging even though it does involve just one person (disproving the "never" statement). And if you're going to argue that future-me is not the same "person" as present-me, try telling that to a judge if you're on trial for something you did years ago. It's still you. – nanoman Jun 7 at 5:39
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    @nanoman xkcd.com/1421 – Buzz Jun 7 at 5:59
  • So you're arguing it is a different person? But then how is it ever justified to punish someone for something their past self did? – nanoman Jun 7 at 6:02
  • @nanoman I'm not arguing anything. I was just pointing out that xkcd has covered that question as well. – Buzz Jun 7 at 20:40
  • But if you are standing by your statement that "communicating is never an activity that just involves one person", then it seems you must be arguing that future-me is not the same person as present-me. The absolutism was unnecessary anyway, as clearly the communication at issue in this question (between author and reviewer) involves two people. I think the "never" statement is a distraction. – nanoman Jun 7 at 20:57
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Overall, this would depend on the specific appeals procedures for the granting agency to which you applied for funding. I, personally, have only ever been involved with US NSF and Simons Foundation (either as an applicant or as a panelist/reviewer). In both these cases appeals based on disagreements with referee reports are not considered, e.g., NSF explicitly states, "Reviews are made available directly to the PI, to provide feedback for the purpose of improving proposed research and research methods, and to assist in preparation of future proposals. They are not intended for any other purpose." (Simons doesn't make reviews available altogether.)

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