When he first saw the email, just after finishing rounds in the surgical intensive care unit, Dr. Joseph Schlesinger began to panic. A government staffer was writing to inform him that he’d made “a fatal error.”
Standing at the nurses’ pod, surrounded by patients in various states of post-surgical woe, he wondered what he should do next. Life-sustaining machines whirred around him, residents discussed prognoses — but he heard nothing. “It was like I was in a vacuum,” said Schlesinger, an assistant professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at Vanderbilt University and a staff physician at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Nashville. None of the cases in front of him needed his immediate attention, and so he left to address the crisis in his inbox.
His “fatal error” was not medical but typographical. A week before, he had submitted an 84-page grant application to the Department of Veterans Affairs. It had taken him months to write, late nights of work before early mornings in the operating room. Now, it turned out, all of that toil had been wasted — because of a problem with fonts.
“Unfortunately, this application used a non-approved font typeface and point size in the Research Plan, which is a fatal error,” the VA staffer wrote on Sept. 19, “and therefore has been withdrawn from review.”
But Schlesinger is certain he never used the prohibited lettering, and he’s delved into the arcana of graphic design to prove it. What he found was evidence of a technological glitch — and he is incensed that something so piddling should stall his own research and that of others.
VA officials retort that rules are rules, and that their 130 pages of guidelines, intended to promote fairness, include a warning about this computer-generated gaffe. The agency’s Rehabilitation Research and Development Service even has ruler-wielding enforcers, who’ve unmasked and thrown out eight poorly formatted submissions of the 346 they’ve received this year.
The issue has arisen before. In 2015, in response to a paleontologist’s post-rejection rage, the United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Research Council released a statement saying it tossed out “just” 4 percent of submissions based on font. Last year, after colleges lost millions in federal grants over typeface mistakes, members of Congress stepped in, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos forbade withholding funds over such trivialities.
Grants are the lifeblood of science. Researchers are as much grant-getters as they are experiment-designers, the way truckers can’t drive without thinking about fuel. To those experienced in requesting cash from both the VA and the National Institutes of Health, rejection on the basis of margin or serif, if not the most pressing problem in biomedical research, is unsurprising and frustrating.
“Happens all the time,” said Jake Seliger, principal at Seliger + Associates Grant Writing Services, of applications thrown out for reasons of formatting. “This is part of the reason we have a business, because part of grant-writing is following every instruction, no matter how absurd-seeming it may be.”
“We have had our share of these glitches here at VA Boston,” Terence Keane, associate chief of staff for research and development at VA Boston Healthcare System, wrote in an email. “No one is ever happy when they make a silly error.”
At first, Schlesinger thought he had in fact made an error, somehow both silly and fatal at once. He rushed to his office from the ICU to check. He opened his word processor, clicked down his Research Plan line by line. It was all 11-point Helvetica. Like an ecologist sampling for forest diversity, he plunked his cursor down at different points in every paragraph, highlighting here and there. Still, all he found was 11-point Helvetica. He even printed it out, and used a ruler to measure the number of characters per horizontal inch and the spacing of his lines. By the VA’s rules, he said, everything should have been fine.
In the hundreds of millions of dollars allocated to VA research every year, the $200,000 he was asking for seem inconsequential — but that amount is what would have allowed him to study collaborative songwriting as a way of improving veterans’ PTSD symptoms. He had already submitted the proposal once, after five months of preparation, and received encouraging comments from reviewers. This time, he’d taken that feedback into account and submitted it again. “When it gets rejected at the administrative level, that’s where it ends,” he said. “They don’t even send it out to the reviewers. The reviewers may not even know I sent it in for resubmission.”
Now, he raced up three flights of stairs to see Russ Beebe, who had tools more powerful than a ruler and the naked eye to figure out what had gone wrong. Beebe had spent decades working in graphic design — at newspapers, ad agencies, print shops — and he helps Vanderbilt researchers format the images in their grant applications.
Graphic designers, before sending out a document, will often do what’s known as a preflight analysis — a kind of computerized quality control that searches out issues in the thickness of hairlines and the bleeding of images — and that is what Beebe did post-hoc for Schlesinger. The problem popped up immediately. The government website requires submissions in PDF format, and in the conversion from Microsoft Word, some bits had been automatically modulated from Helvetica to Arial, and downsized by a few decimal points. That was why, as VA staffers had noted, certain sections had exceeded “the 15 characters per horizontal inch and 6 lines per vertical inch allowed.”
How, you might wonder, did the agency pick up on such a minute change? Patricia Dorn, the VA director of Rehabilitation R&D, who withdrew Schlesinger’s application, told STAT that each intake officer has a keen eye for any suspicious-looking margins or uncanny fonts.
“They convert it back into Word, and … they see the font type and the font size, and then they print the page, which is what we asked people to do,” she said. “They literally get a ruler out and do character counts and they do line counts.”
“We have these rules and guidelines and very specific parameters that I feel I have to uphold for everybody in the system. I’m not saying that because I’m some crazy rule freak. It’s a competitive process.”
Patricia Dorn, the VA director of Rehabilitation R&D
Schlesinger said he did, in fact, print off a page from each section of his PDF, as the instructions suggest, but the differences in font were indistinguishable to his eye. Dorn insisted that any researcher who doesn’t have her staff’s acuity for marginal irregularities should ask her office for help.
“It’s tragic when an application doesn’t go to panel, I’m not going to say it isn’t, but I’m also going to say we have these rules and guidelines and very specific parameters that I feel I have to uphold for everybody in the system,” said Dorn. “I’m not saying that because I’m some crazy rule freak. It’s a competitive process.”
She emphasized that her typeface decisions are about fairness, so that no one researcher gets more space than any other. Because of the way those rules are enforced, sometimes an accidental smaller font size gets penalized even if a researcher’s application may not actually contain more material than it would have with the right lettering.
Whether you find it reassuring or dismaying that there are government officers measuring letters and lines with rulers depends on your point of view. For Schlesinger, the drama over his “fatal error” was deeply upsetting — though he plans to resubmit at the next deadline, with some preflight help from Beebe.
“When you have physicians leave the VA, it’s because of these types of issues thematically. The bureaucratic issues burn us out at the VA,” said Schlesinger. “I’ve decided to continue to work at the VA, but I did talk to my boss about cutting down on my time at the VA out of sheer frustration. Ultimately, it hurts the vets, and it’s not their fault, they deserve excellent health care. We just want to provide that care, we want to provide great science and discovery, and issues like this stall it.”