Speaking Out

"No" Times Nine

On May 11, 1995, I received the usual form letter from the Office of the Vice Provost for Research informing me that my request for support of my research from the Research Foundation was denied. The form letter, as usual, states nothing about why the specific proposal was turned down but cheerfully pretends that "in the future, as the Research Foundation increases its resources, we hope to be able to fund a larger fraction of faculty research proposals." I use the term "cheerfully pretends" as, by now, I have in my possession nine such letters mailed to me over the past eight years.

In the first few years (after the first two or three rejections), I was advised by colleagues that I was only a visiting faculty members and thus low on the priority list. Later, when I became a member of the standing faculty and then became tenured, I was told by colleagues that I either asked for too much or too little money, that my budgetary justifications were insufficient, my request did not indicate that supporting me would be correlated with potential external funding sources, the content may not be of interest, and so forth. Yet, for example, in one proposal I applied for seed money to start a new research project (which was later externally funded) and in another I asked for support in expanding an ongoing study which was also funded externally; in both cases I was turned down. Note, however, that these presumptions were provided by colleagues, based on their experience with the Research Foundation, and not by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research which coordinates the activities of the Research Foundation. Thus I cannot attest to the merit of any of the above possible reasons for my many rejections. In two instances, I requested explanations (after the fourth and eighth rejections); in response, I got brief and vague explanations (one written and one oral) that said very little in terms of what to improve. Nevertheless, in both instances, I was enthusiastically encourage to continue trying "as it is important for the institution to support the research of its members."

Needless to say, every rejection No one that I know is ever pleased to be turned down. Furthermore, I was under the possibly naive assumption that my chances of being supported by my home institution would be higher than in the outer world. However, in the same eight-year period that the University of Pennsylvania Research Foundation turned me down consecutively nine times, I submitted 31 external grant proposals for similar or higher sums of money. Out of these 31 proposals, eight were accepted and funded. Thus, in the last eight years my rate of success in obtaining external grants was about one of four, and zero of nine at the University of Pennsylvania Research Foundation. One need not be a statistician to realize that these ratios are at odds. When one is repeatedly turned down by one's base institution, while concurrently both successfully publishing and obtaining external funding, questions as to what is implied are unavoidable.

I must state here that some of my colleagues were supported by the Research Foundation. A few were even supported more than once. I do not have data, since data are not public, as to how widespread the phenomenon of repeated rejections by the Research Foundation is. However, as a trained social worker I believe that issues such as this should be made public, if only to prevent its occurrence to someone else in the future. This letter is in fact an exercise in community change. This is what we define as "the person is political." I would like to suggest changes in the system to support others who may have encountered similar experiences.

In my view, the Research Foundation is handled in a manner similar to a private charitable foundation that is free from public accountability. The foundation has full control of the money; it appoints whomever it chooses, and it has no obligations towards those who apply. In my opinion, based on the above experience, change is needed. There should be, at the minimum:

It is my hope that in the long run this letter will bring some changes to the system that will prevent the Research Foundation from becoming a detrimental experience for additional Penn faculty.

-- Ram A. Cnaan, Associate Professor of Social Work

Response from Dr. Cooperman


Tuesday, July 18, 1995
Volume 42 Number 1

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