I’m Your Huckleberry

Jun 06 2014 Published by under Fixing the NIH, Grant Review, NIH, Peer Review

bluebirdhappinessThis is a guest appearance of the bluebird of Twitter happiness known as My T Chondria. I am almost positive the bird does some sort of science at some sort of US institution of scientific research.


I’m your biased reviewer. I’ve sat on study sections for most of the years I’ve been a faculty member and I’m biased. I’m exactly who Sally Rockey and Richard Nakamura are targeting in their call for proposals to lessen bias and increase impartial reviewing of NIH applications.

Webster’s defines bias as “mental tendency or inclination” listing synonyms including “predisposition, preconception, predilection, partiality, and proclivity”. When I review a grant from an African American applicant, I have a preconception of who they are. I refine that judgment based on their training, publications and productivity.

I should share that I’m also biased in my review of applicants who have health issues, are women, are older than 30 and have children. I’ve had every one of these types of trainees in my lab and my experiences with them lead me to develop partiality and preconceptions that impact my opinions and judgments. Parts of my preconceptions arise from my experiences with these trainees in my as well those I interacted with while serving on my University’s admission committee. I was biased when I performed those duties as well.

Anyone who pretends to be utterly impartial is dangerous and hurtful to those we say we value as a scientific community. I am frankly stunned to see so many tone deaf and thoughtless comments claiming they are deeply offended at the at this ‘mindless drivel’.
Dr Marconi is just one of many scientists who claim, “I’ve never seen this, so it must not be true”. Scientist’s careers are based on things that cannot be seen, but we collect and interpret data and develop an understanding based on that which we cannot see. Data has been collected and the results are alarming and open for active debate.

Bias is far more insidious than racism. Racists reveal themselves and their ignorance and are often dismissed by ‘educated’ society for their extremist views. Bias is far subtler. Even if it results in an imperceptible change in scoring, we are in a climate where these things matter. Where razor fine decisions are being made on funding.

It's the people who are sure they have no bias that I fear. I know I have bias. We are simply incapable of being utterly impartial and anyone who says they are impartial is dangerously obtuse to these problems at best and a liar at worst.

22 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:

    Endorse. And applaud.

    Similar to all the protesting comments over at RockTalk blog, I likewise have never observed what I would think even remotely of as overt bias against a PI on the grounds of racial or ethnic characteristics. I certainly do not feel as though I myself have expressed any such bias during review of any grant applications.

    As MyTChondria points out, this discussion is not about that. Bias can be insidious. It can be covert. It can most certainly be entirely unintentional and/or appear despite our best efforts to avoid it.

    There are pages and pages of experimental psychology findings, not just the Implicit Association ones either, that illustrate how subject we poor humans are to various types of biased thinking (and perceiving). Also the hilarious degree to which we remain ignorant of our biases. Don't most educated people know this by now?

  • Odyssey says:

    Don't most educated people know this by now?

    Apparently not.

  • NatC says:

    Well said, MyT. And thank you.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The comments on Nakamura's piece at RockTalking are also infused with a strong sense of "let me splain the REAL bias in review". Which is, per usual, whatever they imagine is keeping their own proposals from being funded.

    A popular theme seems to be that if we just alleviated the budget problem, all bias would disappear......those people need to read up on what happened during the doubling, if you ask me. Start with young/new Investigator success rates, folks.

  • I saw that in the comments section (and was depressed)! And there's evidence that people who don't think they have implicit bias are more biased in their ratings and actions than people who realize they have implicit bias. (PLOS ONE article out last summer with a randomized controlled experiment showing that.)

  • Annon says:

    What the comments on the links provided in this blog don't mention (or realize?) is that if you are a minority then the bias isn't just in the peer review system. It is in your every day life. Your colleagues in your department, your administration, your students. The end result is that paper cuts of bias happen to you *every single day*, and you have to work harder to get anything.

    No wonder the data often show minorities are less successful. There is a whole domino effect: If you are not given the space or time to bloom, then you won't even apply for the big grants, or submit more grants. You realize that you don't have the ability to carry out the work you'd like to propose, so you chase after smaller things that perhaps you can do.

    (by "time" I mean workload. I often see women and minorities be asked to do increased service loads, often because the administration wants a woman or xx minority to be on the committee - instead of hiring more minorities they overwork the few they have. There are only so many hours in a day, and each time you say yes to one thing, it takes you away from something else).

    I also agree that those who think they are not biased and won't even consider looking at themselves in the mirror are the ones with the worst biases.

  • Dave says:

    The faux outrage over at Rock Talk gets me:

    I’m also offended by the suggestion that study sections are biased towards minorities

    You have to be a total moron to say this. It's human nature and it's inescapable. Much better to accept it's there and find ways to minimize its influence.

  • Annon says:

    Here is a good site to visit and learn more about your own biases


  • Itte's pathetic--and all-too predictable--that half of that comment thread is the usual fucken whining about FACTUAL ERRORS KILLED MY GENIUS APPLICATION and EATTE THE RICH.

  • dsks says:

    These indignant folk should absolutely be allowed to resign their posts on government grant review panels. It would be a win-win. They needn't have their sensitive sensitivities accosted by the stark light of reason and the empirical record, and study sections wil increasingly be peopled by participants with at least one acknowledging eye on their own innate biases.

  • mytchondria says:

    When I started reading those comments, I thought there were just a few dumbasses out there...but wow. I think that Sally Rockey and Rick Nakamura bears a large part of this burden for not clearly stating the problem and the data to support that this is a real thing. Poorly written memo.

  • gerty-z says:

    Great post! The comments over at Rock Talk were so fucking depressing. ugh.

  • Ola says:

    Is it still blue bird of happiness? I thought it was bird killing cat of doom these days?
    Anyway, all good points, we're all biased, especially those who claim not to be.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    It will always be the bluebird of happiness to me.

  • dsks says:

    " I think that Sally Rockey and Rick Nakamura bears a large part of this burden for not clearly stating the problem and the data to support that this is a real thing. Poorly written memo."

    True dat.

    This comment nailed it (my bold),
    "This is scary. Self-identified “reviewers” in this comment section that are/were presumably NIH funded are using their personal poorly validated anecdotal experiences on study section to try and refute published data… I wonder if they use similar anecdotes to draw conclusions in other ways? Is this where we are at as a scientific community? Have you considered that it’s not an issue of bias against a minority group, but rather a strong bias in favor of the majority?"

    The data is out. The message should be, either refute these conclusions with new data demonstrating the contrary, or shut the hell up and be part of the solution.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    In fairness, there was one attempt to critique Ginther with data analysis


  • DrugMonkey says:

    Also, for any newcomers, I've written about the bias in grant review that is related to the current discussion at Rock Talking http://scientopia.org/blogs/drugmonkey/?s=Ginther

  • becca says:

    In defense of Rockey and Nakamura, I know of no evidence that suggests an information-deficit model explains the clueless comments. People want to see the process as fair, and themselves as decent. Data on implicit bias won't matter, you're asking people to admit the game is rigged and they are jerks, and that's a hard sell no matter how true.

  • Grumble says:

    And it's an especially hard sell if it isn't true.

  • toto says:

    From the link in DrugMonkey's comment:

    ""Ginther also points out that in their Science paper, her team said another explanation for the racial gap could be that black scientists submit weaker proposals. That might reflect the fact that blacks have less access to mentors than their white colleagues—a possible problem that NIH's plan will address. "I think they're [Wang's team] making a mountain out of a molehill when it comes to the bias question," Ginther says.""

    I think Ginther will take a lot of flak for that last sentence.

  • […] get reviewers excited – is a big one. Implicit and explicit biases play a role here – everyone has biases. We have pet theories in their field, pet techniques,  pet topics, pet schools of thought. Peer […]

Leave a Reply