Exactly one year ago, on October 6, 2016, I submitted a VIDI project to the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) on “Outsourcing the Mind: Symbolic Intentionality and Tools for Thought in a Brentanian Framework”. On January 20, 2017 I received three referee reports (“A+”, “A-/B+”, “A”) and on January 27 I submitted my rebuttal to the reports. On March 6 I was invited for an interview with the NWO commission for the Humanities. On May 25 I finally received the decision of the committee (“not granted”) and on May 30 the final report and explanation of the decision. Only 10 out of 79 projects received funding and while my project was evaluated as “very good”, it did not rank high enough.

After reading the details of the commission’s brief report and discussing it with several colleagues, I decided to appeal the decision. NWO has a policy in place through which a candidate can appeal the decision of the commission within 6 weeks of receipt. I requested all the internal documents that were relevant to the decision regarding my project proposal, including the preliminary assessment and rankings, internal meeting notes, the transcript of my interview, and the final ranking (all dutifully anonymised to protect the privacy of the other candidates). It turned out that I ended up as 13th, with a final score of 1.84, just 0.05 points below the last project to be funded. However, besides such formal matters, I saw in those documents a clear pattern that had driven the decision towards rejection. Referee 2 had said: “As currently presented, this second step [translate these historical results into the terms of the contemporary debate and communicate them to that literature] is not part of the proposed project, but I hope the applicant would consider pursuing it should the historical portion of the project prove successful.” And then repeated this when summarising the weaknesses of the project. Based mainly on Referee 2, the commission came back to this issue in the interview as well as the final decision. The commission deemed it unclear how I would contribute to current systematic debates and considered my plans for an exhibition in a museum not concrete enough. However, I never claimed that I would intervene in contemporary debates in cognitive science, since this is a historical project, and an exhibition was just one out of four proposals for knowledge exchange that I had suggested (“A further possibility consists in developing a guided tour or a curated exhibition”.).

The appeals process is meant to check whether the commission did correctly apply NWO’s own guidelines for assessing research projects. My appeal however concentrates on a question of principle, not whether the criteria had been applied correctly, but whether these were the correct criteria. My project is historical, why should it be assessed based on a direct contribution to current debates? In my rebuttal and in my interview I had clarified that I (viz. my team) would not intervene directly in systematic debates, but that the results of our research would certainly be relevant for some current authors and debates. If we would succeed in bringing out in more detail Brentano’s idea of (symbolic) intentionality, then current authors that appeal directly to Brentano could profit from that. Historical work can certainly inform contemporary systematic debates, without participating directly in them (e.g. consider the contributions made by critical editions and translations). Regarding valorisation and knowledge exchange, I had claimed that we would communicate the results of our research to the general public through blogging, public lectures, and a course for HOVO (Higher Education for the Elderly). Referee 2 stated: “all three of these strategies seem realistic”. I added that a further possibility, given the focus on calculating machinery, could be an exhibition in a museum with mechanical calculators and computers in its collection. This struck the referee as unrealistic and the commission concluded that my plans were not concrete enough. In my interview and my appeal I pointed out that I could hardly tell a museum “Hi, there’s at best a 15% chance that in 3-4 years I might have something interesting for you” and come away from that conversation with a concrete agreement or strong commitment. After all: no funding, no results, no exhibition. At best my “plan” could be: once I get funding, I will approach specific museums to develop detailed plans together.

The appeals commission accepted my appeal and invited the Humanities section at NWO to write a reply to my appeal. In the reply, NWO seemed to just repeat the same statements of the final decision, pointing out that correct procedure had been followed in all instances. They did not in any way address my more principled objections. Together with representatives of the Humanities section, I was invited to a hearing of the appeals commission and was asked to prepare a plea, which should address NWO’s reply. In my plea I pointed out that NWO had failed to address the core of my concerns, i.e. that direct relevance for systematic debates was hardly a fair criterium for historical projects and that the guidelines were at best vague regarding how “concrete” the plans for knowledge valorisation should be. At the hearing, the appeals commission seemed to share my concerns and had some hard questions for the NWO representatives. The commission took over my questions of principle and the NWO representatives, put on the spot, didn’t actually have a good answer to that.

After all this back-and-forth, the appeals commission will prepare an advice for the Executive Board of NWO on how to handle the objections in my appeal. I’m not sure what I can expect from the process, despite inquiring with several full professors, research support offices, and legal departments. Nobody actually seems to know much about this process and what to expect. I’ll make the relevant documents available here  in the interest of future candidates seeking information (most of them in Dutch):

In the end, the whole appeals process was a positive experience for me. By getting to see the internal reports and preliminary assessments, I learned a lot about the evaluation procedures at NWO, which is helpful for writing future research projects. The high ranking plus the support of the appeals commission confirm that my research plan really is worthwhile. Even if I didn’t get my VIDI, I think I am in a much better position now to rewrite and adapt the project proposal to a different grant scheme.