Peer review is valuable

Last winter I submitted a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation in which I hedged a bit too much about the future course of my research project by saying that, “depending on feasibility” I would either carry out in-depth interviews or a larger-scale quantitative survey. “Feasibility” was dependent on conditions at the sites I wanted to visit (travel proposed in my application, of course), and at the time I thought it was a reasonable strategy: Visit some sites of interest, get a feeling for conditions there, and then continue to plan.

The NSF had other ideas, and my reviewers told me that this whole “feasibility” business sent up “several red flags.” My lack of concrete theory- and research-driven expectations about local conditions made the generation of hypotheses extremely problematic, they wrote, and it left the project feeling rather tenuous. They decided, ultimately, not to fund the project, and so just last week I completed a revision of my proposal, one that, I think, is much better at addressing concerns over “feasibility.” In short, I am more specific about the course of the study and leave far fewer aspects of it dependent on any future findings. In other words, I have plotted out a plan for research that takes into account some of the complexities of doing science, details how I will deal with those eventualities, and—I hope, everyday—does so with an eye toward the eventual outcome of my research project. I think it’s a good proposal, and I am optimistic that my reviewers will find it to be much improved this time around.

I just wish that certain others, when promising a detailed plan, were subject to the same sort of review.