Newsletter: What do you do when your evaluator disagrees with a recommendation by your program officer?

Posted on April 1, 2014 by  in Newsletter - ()

Director of Research, The Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University

This was a question submitted anonymously to EvaluATE by an ATE principal investigator (PI), so I do not know the specific nature of the recommendation in question. Therefore, my response isn’t about the substance of whatever this recommendation may have been about, but on the interpersonal and political dynamics of the situation.

Let’s put the various players’ roles into perspective:
As PI, you are ultimately responsible for your project—delivering what you outlined in your grant proposal/negotiations and making decisions about how best to conduct the project based on your experience, expertise, and input from various advisors. You are in the position of authority when it comes to how your project is implemented and what recommendations from what sources to implement in order to ensure the success of your project.

Your NSF program officer (PO) monitors your project, primarily based on information you provide in your annual report, submitted to him or her via research.gov. Your NSF
program officer may provide extremely valuable guidance and advice, but the PO’s role is to comment on your project as described in the report. You are not obligated to accept the advice. However, the PO does approve the report, based on his or her assessment of whether the project is sufficiently meeting the expectations of the grant. If you choose not to accept your program officer’s recommendations—which is completely acceptable—you should be able to provide a clear rationale for your decision in a respectful and diplomatic way by addressing each of the issues raised. Such a response should be documented, such as in your annual report and/or a response to the evaluation report.

Your evaluator is a consultant you hired to provide a service to your project in exchange for compensation. You are not obligated to accept this person’s recommendations, either. Again,
however, you should give your evaluator’s recommendations—especially those based on evidence—careful consideration and express why or why not you believe the recommendations are or are not appropriate for your project. An evaluator should never “ding” your project for not implementing the evaluation recommendations.

If you are really not sure who is right and neither person’s position (the PO’s recommendation or the evaluator’s disagreement with it) especially resonates with you and your understanding of what your project needs, you should seek additional information. If you have an advisory panel, this is exactly the type of tricky situation they can help with. If you don’t, you might consult an experienced person at your institution or another ATE project or center PI. Whichever way you go, you should be able to provide a clear rationale for your position and communicate it to both parties. This is not a popularity contest between your evaluator and your program officer. This is about making the right decisions for your project.