Chapter 6: Reaction from the National Science Foundation
Declination of 1977 Proposal
In 1977 I submitted a grant proposal to the NSF which was very similar to the one it had funded in 1974. I
requested funds (1) to continue the search for superheavy elements, (2) for additional research on polonium, dwarf,
and giant halos in granites, and (3) for further investigations of halos in coalified wood. This time my proposal was
declined. My collaborators in the superheavy element experiments at Florida State University and the University of
California-Davis were still receiving NSF funding for further work on superheavy elements. But my proposal to
continue similar work had been denied. I wrote for an explanation.
Funding decisions within the NSF are based on reviews by six scientists who respond by mail, in addition to
panel reviews by six other scientists. Of the six mail reviews of my 1977 proposal, four had actually recommended
further funding. The two negative ones cited as their main reason the mistaken identification of superheavy
In contrast to the mail reviews, the panel review evaluation of my proposal was largely negative. Upon my
request, Dr. John Hower, then Program Director for Geochemistry at NSF, sent a summary of the panel discussion.
It dealt at length with my research on superheavy elements, concluding that "there is little possibility of their
detection by proposed techniques." Yet my colleagues at FSU and UC-Davis were using one of the same
techniques outlined in my proposal, and the NSF was continuing their funding.
In my case, the panel reviewers decided to reject my entire proposal for what I think were spurious reasons. The
following quote from Dr. Hower's letter to me describes the decisive objection found by the panel reviewers in my
The most important criticism of the proposal did not, however, have to do with superheavy elements detection.
The criticism stemmed from the general nature of the proposed research on haloes. The principal
investigator has been collecting specimens, examining them petrographically, and reporting their morphology and
mineral occurrence for a number of years. The panel considered that these descriptive contributions have been of
some value, but felt that more of the same approach had little [p. 77] potential to contribute something new. The
main difficulty with the proposal is that (aside from the superheavy element search) there was no hypothesis
concerning the origin of the haloes that the principal investigator proposed to test. He has already looked
at and described a number of occurrences. The panel felt that it was not justified in recommending funding of a
research project that merely proposed to make additional observations of the phenomenon. There seems little
possibility that the principal investigator could arrive at a hypothesis by looking at additional haloes since
he has not been able to propose one at this time. (Hower 1977; Appendix—italics mine)
Initially I understood "haloes" in the first italicized phrase referred to both giant halos and polonium halos as
discussed in the proposal. "Haloes" in the second italicized phrase I understood to mean primarily giant halos
because of the reference to superheavy elements. And since "haloes" in the last italicized phrase was not qualified, I
again assumed it referred to polonium halos in granites. On that basis I felt there were some contradictions in the
NSF handling of my case, and I decided to appeal their declination of my proposal.
Appeal to the NSF
The relevant part of my appeal letter, addressed to Dr. Edward Todd, the Assistant Director for Astronomical,
Atmospheric, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences, National Science Foundation, is as follows:
Now with respect to the second criticism of the proposal, the Program Director's letter states that in essence
the panel was not able to find that I had any hypothesis to test with respect to the other phases of my research
on halos, or that there was any prospect of my finding a hypothesis in the future. I can understand such
statements could be made by persons unacquainted with geochemical terminology who might read my
published reports. It is, however, very difficult for me to understand how a panel of geochemists could make
such statements, especially in view of the fact that I had previously discussed with the Program Director the
hypothesis and implications of my research on Po halos as they have been published in the open scientific
literature and referred to in both the previous and the present NSF proposals. . . .
I specifically refer to the fact that I have proposed that "Po halos" in Earth's basement granitic rocks
represent evidence of extinct natural radioactivity and thus imply only a brief period between "nucleosynthesis"
and crystallization of the host rocks [Gentry 1975]. . . . Furthermore, back [p. 78] in 1973, again in
a Nature report [Gentry et al. 1973], I pointed out the existence of Po halos "meets with severe
geological problems: the half-lives of the polonium isotopes (t½ = 3 min for 218Po) are too short to permit
anything but a rapid mineral crystallization, contrary to accepted theories of magmatic cooling rates."
. . .
In fact a person really doesn't have to be a geochemist, or even have training in geochemistry (actually I am
a physicist turned aside into nuclear geophysics), to see that in my published reports I am claiming to have
found evidence that shakes the foundations of modern cosmology and geochemistry. Thus because I have been
very forthright in stating the implications of my research in my published reports, I would like to suggest to you
the possibility that, when the Program Director and the review panel indicated they had difficulty finding my
hypothesis, what they really meant was that they could not fit the evidence I have reported into any of the
popular, currently held geochemical or cosmological theories concerning the origin of the earth.
Much later it occurred to me that the panel reviewers may never have intended any reference to polonium halos
in their comments. Perhaps they decided to just ignore this phase of my proposal. In any event, Dr. Todd's response
to my appeal letter did not address this issue. It stated:
. . . It is my conclusion that your proposal received a thorough and fair peer review through the
Geochemistry Program Office, a review that included a conscientious and careful consideration of six ad
hoc mail reviews. As part of the reconsideration process your rebuttal to those reviews has been considered
It is my opinion that your proposal was fairly reviewed and that the decision to decline was justified. (Todd
In this response, Dr. Todd ignored the three main points of my appeal letter: (1) NSF support of the other
researchers who participated in the original superheavy element experiments, while denying similar support for my
research; (2) the panel's refusal to acknowledge that I had proposed a hypothesis for the origin of polonium halos;
(3) my claim of finding evidence which challenges the foundations of modern cosmology and geochemistry.
Todd's silence on these points led me to believe it would be futile to appeal this decision to a higher level of NSF.
Was my proposal rejected because of philosophic bias rather than scientific considerations?