Speaking Out

Response to Dr. Cnaan

It is, of course, regrettable that Professor Cnaan's experience with the Research Foundation should have been so negative as to have moved him to write his letter. The purpose of the Research Foundation is to encourage exploration of new fields across a broad spectrum of disciplines with the dual aims of attracting external support where possible and of providing support in fields that are traditionally underfunded. I take quite seriously Professor Cnaan's criticisms, though not necessarily agreeing with his proposed solutions.

Perhaps it would be best to first describe the grant review process. I appoint annually four discipine-specific peer-review panels (Biomedical Sciences, Humanities, Natural Science and Engineering, and Social and Management Sciences), consisting of 5-7 members each. Two members of each panel are appointed by the Faculty Senate, with the remainder appointed by me following recommendations from Deans and Departmental Chairpersons. In general, no one serves consecutively for more than three-four years. This is the case for the Social and Management Sciences panel that has reviewed Professor Cnaan's proposals, which consisted this year of six professors from the fields of Demography, Economics, Education, Folklore and Folklife, Human Development and Behavior, and Management and International Studies. Only two of the six were on the panel two years ago and none served four years ago. On rare occasions I have convinced someone who has been off the panel for some time to serve a second tour of duty. I try to recruit the panel chairperson from among panel members who have served at least one year.

Once chosen, the panels review, and rank order the proposals. I then meet with the panel chairpersons and together we decide how far down the list we can go in funding proposals, given the resources available to the Foundation (now approximately $1.5 - 1.6 million per year). About 95% of the Foundation's money is awarded in this fashion. I generally keep back about 5% to be able to respond to special requests by Deans, Department Chairpersons, or Center Directors. Typically such responses are made on a matching basis--if the requestor puts up 50%, the Foundation will match it.

As part of the review process I ask panel chairs to make written comments on each proposal as it is reviewed, so as to provide feedback to applicants who have questions. In general, such applicants have been unsuccessful, and wish to know how to improve their proposals. Applicants also have the right to contact the Chairperson directly. I met with Professor Cnaan in January of this year to discuss the Social Science and Management panel's evaluation of his Fall 94 proposal. The Chairperson of the panel also offered to meet with Professor Cnaan, but the offer was declined.

Since the inception of the Foundation, I have put great stress on making awards as quickly as possible following application, so that money is available to researchers in a timely fashion. Our grant submission deadlines are November 1 and March 15, and award letters are typically sent out 6-7 weeks later; before the Christmas break in the Fall semester, and prior to the end of final exams in the Spring semster. This priortity militates against the kind of comprehensive written review that Professor Cnaan suggests, not to mention the difficulty one would have in recruiting faculty to serve on panels charged with such a heavy administrative burden. This year's panels reviewed 286 proposals, with the recent average per year falling between 250 -300. I should also add that I know of no funding agency that attempts, as Professor Cnaan suggests, to single out individuals who are continually rejected to give them specific suggestions on how to improve their chances of success. Nor do I believe such a process to be appropriate for the Research Foundation, although it might be for Department Chairpersons and Deans.

Since the Fall of 1987, the Research Foundation has funded 1,106 of 2,279 submitted proposals (48.5%). It is my firm conviction that the Research Foundation has been successful in expanding the breadth of research at Penn and in attracting external funding. It provides a means for junior faculty to build their own research programs and for senior faculty to explore new areas, and it does so with processes that are fair and open.

-- Barry Cooperman Vice Provost for Research


Tuesday, July 18, 1995
Volume 42 Number 1

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