A letter to the blog asked us a question which expresses a paranoia about the peer review process that, while typical, is absolutely corrosive to the practice of science. I'm not casting any stones here, I've had suspicions about the motivations of certain reviewers of my grants on at least one occasion myself. The letter reads:
I am submitting an NIH proposal, and the most appropriate study section has a (perceived) conflict of interest: one study section member is at the same institution/department with my only competition. Am I inevitably putting my application in the hands of my competitor's colleague, who could share it with my competition and steal my ideas before I have a chance to work on them? I could argue to go to a slightly different study section, but I do not think it would be as appropriate. What should I do? Does it involve Jameson?
A Junior Scientist
PhysioProf had the following comment:
This would not be considered a "conflict of interest" under any fair reading of the NIH rules. If your competitor's colleague shares your proposal with your competitor, that would be a gross breach of NIH rules. Bottom line: suck it up and hope the reviewer is not morally bankrupt.
I concur. And I hate to break it to you, this is the tepid version. Sometimes it will be the reviewer herself who you think is in scientific conflict because she is the one you think of as your "competitor".
While we should not be naive there is a point at which suspicion and paranoia over the potential scooping or stealing actions of other scientists make the whole enterprise break down. Agreed that idea stealing will also really screw up science but I argue that the number of suspicions run several orders of magnitude more plentiful than actual nefarious acts.
I return to some of my usual points.
-You do not know who actually reviewed your grant (or paper), nor do you know who was pulling for it and who was crapping on it. My direct experiences suggest that the usual paranoid mind might be very surprised indeed.
-Are you a scummy, unethical idea-stealing scientist? Are your closest scientific homies? No? Then what makes you think those other folks are?
-Ideas are plentiful in science- your peers are a bunch of really, really smart and highly trained individuals who are interested in the exact same things that you are. They read the same literature and can deploy the same model systems. Are you positive you are the only one who could possibly have had this "idea"?
I'll close on the specific strategy proposed by the letter writer. Should you try a study section which has less expertise but doesn't contain a scientific competitor? I'd say no way in hell. I think you absolutely must have at least one advocate that really understands your sub-(sub,sub,sub)field and / or the importance of your specific ideas and models. You need someone knowledgeable to convince the other members of the panel of how great your project really is. If you have people with peripheral expertise, they aren't going to care as much. They aren't going to understand your goals as well, won't be able to articulate your significance and are going to have other proposals that they find more familiar and of personal interest.
I tend to think that if you don't have at least one Bunny Hopper reviewing your bunny hopping grant you are sunk. If you are in the Bunny Hopper study section, at least then you have a chance. A chance that your reviewer will be one of the overwhelming majority of ethical reviewers rather than one of the small minority of moral wasteland reviewers.