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.

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“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and point size in the Research Plan, which is a fatal error,” the VA staffer wrote on Sept. 19, “and therefore has been withdrawn from review.”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.

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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.”

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  • I’d think the regulation on fonts is to have researchers all using the same amount of space in describing their project, which sounds reasonable.
    But this aim could be more easily achieved by limiting the number of words or characters used. The various word processors (Word, OpenOffice, LibreOffice) all have a function to display the number of lines, words, characters of selected or all text in a document.
    Then any font could be used, and writers could, e.g. use regular and italics, and 12 pt font for easiest readibility.

  • TFH,

    Are you talking about the same people who make sure that only big-name, big labs get the tiny number of funded grants? The same people who let young newcomers with great ideas just swing in the breeze until they join biotech/pharma companies and say, “good-bye academia; I am too young for this ancient system of deifying old men with extra-large, bloated labs whose universities also receive >70% of the amount the labs do?”

    I could tell so! You come across just that way in a comments section of Stat.

    • Most people starting out in research believe that they have breakthrough ideas. In my experience, when they fail to get support it is because they cannot make a convincing case for their project – not that their idea was all that bad.

      NIH has quite a few programs that actually handicap senior researchers to favor of new investigators. Maybe if you are just starting out you should take a look at my book. Science is not an even playing field. As seniority grows, investigators have a history of applying, failing, revising, failing again, re-revising, and getting a grant. Science is a collegial profession and peer review is a part of it. You thought your MS and PhD theses were just a silly exercise; not part of learning your craft?

      Alas, data show that most new investigators who fail to get funded on their 1st application react with petulance and never apply again. All institute directors have engaged in revise-and-resubmit and still do now and then. BTW, most study sections are not populated by stodgy old farts, but people who love science, are very good at it, and try to help applicants who fall short of the mark by providing constructive feedback.

      Finally, there is nothing wrong with passing up a $90K/year tenure track med school appointment for a $180K/year job in industry. I have several friends who did just that and are in endowed chairs today.

  • Hopefully, in the VA guidelines of 130 pages, they warn of this potential problem. Secondly, I hope they take the budget axe to the vetting group and eliminate it and allocate the funds wasted on micrometer measurements to the research funding pool.

    • If you eliminate peer review because peers sometimes get it wrong the funds wasted on junk science would increase an order of magnitude, and the grants program would become a mere lottery. I have sat in on literally thousands of grant application reviews either as reviewer or program director. While I have seen groups miss the point of a proposed study, it is almost always because the applicant did not present a convincing argument; not that they were proposing bad science.

      Although program directors do not vote in peer review, they often play a subsequent role as referee and convince their management team that a project is worth funding despite a high (bad) peer review score. That is one reason why they sit in on reviews. The second reason is to provide better guidance to applicants regarding areas where they fumbled so they can revise and resubmit successfully. Keep in mind agencies must be able to justify to Congress why they funded every project. Peer review keeps Congress honest because they want all the grants to go to the institutions in their district.

  • Sorry. Some “mistakes” are intentional.

    But, an assumed cheat caused by a defective PDF conversion should not be automatically called. It would be easily enough verified just by printing out the original Word document and spot-checking it — for one obvious thing, if the print-out comes out longer than the PDF, then there’s a problem. A little bit less obvious, and a smidgeon more time consuming, would be if any of the pages didn’t come out the same. This should not merit disqualification, even if other issues, such as not-on-time delivery because of a blizzard, do.

  • Deb S. (the reply function seems to be broken), it’s about being a careful and thorough worker. If you can’t be bothered to proofread the final result, why should you be trusted with $200,000 of the taxpayers’ money?

  • TFH,
    You are now sounding a bit like fake news/conspiracy theorist. Guys don’t you understand? The incorrect font was put in there… ON PURPOSE!

  • I think of it as a screening test for professional competence. It does not help that the proposal is for $200,000 to use collaborative songwriting for treating PTSD. At least, one or more genuine scientists will be spared reading his 84-page grant application. If he wants to leave the VA, good riddance.

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