VA rejects physician's 84-page research grant over typographic errors

Joseph Schlesinger, MD, assistant professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at Nashville, Tenn.-based Vanderbilt University, received an email from Veteran Affairs Sept. 19, stating his 84-page grant for veteran-based research was rejected due to a typological issue, according to STAT.

Here are five things to know:

1. Dr. Schlesinger is also a physician for the Veterans Affairs hospital in Nashville and wrote a proposal for a $200,000 grant to research how collaborative songwriting can help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Schlesinger said he printed out his application in 11-point Helvetica font and measured the number of characters per horizontal line with a ruler to ensure the grant followed the VA's application guidelines.

2. However, he ultimately received a rejection email from the VA, which read, "Unfortunately, this application used a non-approved font typeface and point size in the research plan, which is a fatal error and therefore has been withdrawn from review," according to STAT.

"When it gets rejected at the administrative level, that's where it ends," Dr. Seliger told STAT. "They don't even send it out to the reviewers. The reviewers may not even know I sent it in for resubmission."

3. The VA's application portal requires grants to be submitted as PDFs. Dr. Schlesinger later learned some parts of his application were automatically changed from Helvetica to Arial, when converting the document, which changed the font size by a few points. This is why VA employees noted portions of the application exceeded the "15 characters per horizontal inch and 6 lines per vertical inch" format, according to STAT.

4. VA officials said their grant application rules are intended to promote fairness. No applicant will receive extra space or words over another applicant. The VA's Rehabilitation Research and Development Service prints out research applications to check the number of lines and characters within each application. In the last grant application period, the department threw out eight proposals due to typological errors.

"Happens all the time," Jake Seliger, a principal at Seliger and Associates Grant Writing Services, told STAT. "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."

5. Dr. Schlesinger said these types of administrative issues contribute to burnout among VA physicians.

"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," Dr. Schlesinger told STAT. "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 healthcare. 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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