One of the favorite timewasters of authors and grant applicants alike is the discussion of who the people writing the reviews were and the obligatory questioning their scientific accomplishments, reading comprehension, acumen and parentage. Done right, this can be a harmless venting of spleen that is necessary before grappling with one's response to the substantive criticisms that have been advanced.
I was shooting the breeze with a colleague the other day and we were chuckling over the hilarious cases we'd run across where we had certain knowledge that the complainer was on the wrong track. They added up. All of a sudden it isn't quite so funny anymore.
I've alluded in prior posts to a certain nasty trend we have been observing wherein senior scientists (almost exclusively) who have not served on study section in (quite) a while, who have never had a grant triaged until recently and who may have only rarely failed to acquire funding when they wrote an application (again, until recently)...vent. And vent in the direction of all these "assistant professors nobody's ever heard of on study section killing my grant. This last one was definitely JuniorMint and s/he wrote all this stupid stuff and clearly has no idea what s/he is talking about and is just out to get me!"
You think I am joking? I am not. This is actually the cleaned-up version of the rant (which can go on for a good thirty minutes if you aren't careful). As is my constant theme to the younger investigators, do you think these CSR/NIH memes come from nowhere? This nonsense has gained the ear of the brass at NIH and CSR which is why we have been hearing so much hot air about the evil effects of too many Assistant Professors on study section and various attempts to DoSomething about this *UnbelievablyCriticalProblem!
Of course, nobody knows for sure who the reviewers were. Yes, you can make some good guesses but you are frequently going to be wrong, quite wrong. I have endless stories from study section of grants where what seems to be the most-appropriate reviewer wasn't on an app. Stories in which someone you'd never think of being on an app had some ancient or covert expertise that is not part of their current reputation. Colleagues who review on other panels relate the same story.
Peer review of papers? C'mon. Everyone has received some papers to review for which they are clearly not in the most obvious category. If you happen to know some editors or serve on one of those Editorial Boards (meaning you get all they stuff they have trouble getting reviewers for) you know what I'm saying. Why do people forget this when they are gaming the identity of reviewers?
If you are wondering at this point why I keep beating this particular drum it is because I keep running across fresh examples. It is an unending supply it seems. The grant-review complaints tick me off personally because I am on study section, have been for a number of rounds now and people spout all kinds of stuff (with great confidence and authoritah!) that is completely inconsistent with my experiences. So I feel as though the enterprise that I am involved with (I think in good faith) is under attack from a position of incredible ignorance, number one. The larger point is that I think one of the structural limitations to the NIH grant review system that most perpetuates cronyism, conservatism in approach and the DismalPlightofJuniorInvestigators is the preponderance of older investigators on panels.
Today's point, however, is the bullying.
That's right, bullying.
It is absolutely going on and it is absolutely corrosive behavior.
Senior folks in the field whinging to each other about how a specific junior member of their field "killed their grant" is bullshit. They should be ashamed of themselves.
First, because they are so frequently wrong about who reviewed their grant. As I mentioned at the outset, my colleague and I were swapping stories of first person evidence. That is, when someone was whinging to us about a review where we had direct personal knowledge that the person being accused either did not review the grant/paper in question or that said person did not levy the offending criticism. My point is that in a significant number of cases, some poor innocent could all of a sudden be facing hostile actions from increasingly critical reviews of their own work/proposals, to adversarial questions at conference presentations to passive aggressive refusals to consider meritorious people for seminars or platform talks at meetings. All without having actually made the critique.
Second, it is only slightly better if the junior investigator in question actually was the critical reviewer. For all of the obvious reasons that using a position of authoritah! to avoid or deflect legitimate critique is bad for science and for science careers. For the unfairness of thinking that one is not subject to the rules of one's business that apply to others. For trying to subvert one of the more productive principles of the scientific enterprise in particular, i.e., that what is most important is the contentious marketplace of fact and interpretation rather than the corporate boardroom of monopolistic hegemony. (Did that work? Probably not. ahh, I know PP will get a conniption so I'll just leave that in)
Third, is the fact that broadcasting your whiny complaints about either a specific reviewer or a category (like Assistant Professors) is intended to be a bullying tactic of intimidation so that the powerless will think twice before messing with your exalted proposals again! Not to mention those proposals of other people in your power category. Bullying.
As usual, despite my cynical outlook, I have some recommendations. Not that you should be stupid about it and throw yourself into the chasm on principle. Some of these senior investigators are very nasty pieces of vengeful work indeed. I am not naive. Still, my exhortation is: Don't tolerate this crap. Don't let it pass unchallenged. Ask how the whiner knows, really knows, that they have identified the right reviewer. Gently remind them of the huge pile of very good grants that the reviewer is sorting. Commiserate with your triage stats and talk about how NIH memes on the New Investigator show how the bias is still overwhelmingly for the senior investigators. Etc. Do what you can, at the very least, not to validate the whining.
It is much like distasteful and unscientific views spouted about women or minorities in science, the goal is to get the otherwise-well-meaning to consider what they are saying and the basis for their (unfounded) beliefs. To get the recalcitrant to diminish their spouting in public and perhaps, gradually, to convince them as a bloc of the unfairness of their anti-junior investigator bigotry.
*I can't help it. I've said it before and I will continue to do so. The numbers don't add up. Assistant Professors have been at worst 10-12% of reviewers. They are much more frequently ad hoc meaning any given individual has fewer grants to review per round and contributes to many fewer rounds. With three reviewers per application, the trend for n00b reviewers to be slightly more deferential to the rest of the panel and more deferential to senior figures, well, the impact of "those Assistant Professors" on the outcome of your particular application is pretty slim. I will also remind that the EvilAssistantProfessors on review panels frequently have to have already secured a grant before being invited. So that means they are unlikely to be raw, 1st - 3rd year Assistant Profs and more likely to be only a year or two away from the tenure decision.