Tuesday 19 February 2013


Whether you’re a teenager getting dumped or a Nobel prize nominee trundling in second, rejection sucks.

I’m none of the above (I used to be an expert at one of them) but today I had a funding application rejected by the Wellcome Trust

The application was for a research fellowship in basic biomedical science. I was planning to study in two parts, first, how training people to inhibit actions toward food and alcohol changes their brain chemistry and physiology, and second, how we might combine brain stimulation with inhibition training to help people recover from alcohol addiction and obesity. I felt these were closely linked themes: a basic strand followed by an applied strand that took the results to the streets.

I felt a bit like Sauron and the One Ring with this application, but with a bit less malice. Into it I poured everything I had done and learned over the last ten years of my research. I used all of my (very helpful and generous) connections and collaborators to devise a project that included such aspects as:
  • a mass online internet experiment that would have been hosted by the Guardian and provided the world’s largest study of human inhibition to date
  • the use of simultaneous brain stimulation (TMS) and brain imaging (fMRI) to study the effects of inhibition training on key connections in the brain
  • randomised controlled trials on the effects of brain stimulation and inhibition training in alcoholism and obesity (a promising combination)
Still, my application wasn’t good enough – not even to make it to interview – and there’s a lesson in that. Science doesn’t care about effort, only about outcomes. I won’t quote the feedback from the Wellcome Trust's Expert Review Group, as it is intended to be confidential (for all concerned). But suffice to say, I felt the single paragraph of feedback rather misunderstood the project and made some factual errors. Of course, this is not the Committee’s fault – it is mine. In science, if you fail to communicate your message clearly then you have only yourself to blame.

I’ve had a lot of rejections in my career far more than I've had successes and I think you can learn a lot about yourself in terms of how you deal with them. In the junior years they feel like getting shot (sometimes stabbed), but with time the trauma gives way to the gentle thud of "not good enough" meteorites bouncing off your own rhinoceros hide. 

A few tips for beginners: 

1)   Remember it probably isn’t personal. Even if the reasons for rejecting your application are unfounded or based on a misunderstanding, it’s rare for decisions to be driven by personal grudges.

2)   The decision makers are human like you. They will make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes will go in your favour and the panel will overlook a genuine weakness in your application. Other times they will pounce on non-existent problems. We have to accept that this decision process is noisy, like every other biological system.

3)   The basis for decisions is never entirely random, so getting things wrong helps you get them right next time. When I repackage and resubmit my application somewhere else, I'll use the feedback from the Trust to make it stronger. Never just blindly resubmit your application; always try to learn something from the rejection and improve it. Dealing constructively with rejection will make you a better scientist. 

4)   Resist the urge, implicitly or explicitly, to take out your disappointment on others. This is a surprisingly easy trap to full into and I suspect many scientists do. Next time a grant application (particularly one from the Wellcome Trust) lands on my desk to review, I might be tempted to treat it particularly harshly because I feel I was treated the same way. Or, what if I happen to be editing a manuscript submitted to Cortex or PLOS ONE by a member of the panel? We must resist being led by (natural) negative emotions because "an eye for an eye" is the anithesis of science.

5)   Finally, remember that reviewers and panel members are ultimately doing you a favour, whatever the outcome. They took the time to read something you wrote. They thought about it and gave you feedback on it. This is actually a pretty remarkable thing and we should be grateful.

So, my feeling about today’s grant rejection is that yes, it sucks! And yes I think the committee made a mistake because I could have settled all those concerns within the first minute of an interview (and yes, of course, I would say that!)

But I’m also grateful for the feedback and I recognise that comparing funding applications is difficult and noisy. Could my application have been stronger? Nope, I gave it everything I had. Could I have done a better job reviewing grants than this panel? No, definitely not. Science is a human enterprise on all fronts.

So I'm going to wallow for another day or so, then I'm going to scrape myself off the floor and rework that application.