The ego blows that are NIH reviews

Oct 21 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Recently on the tweets:

I wish to be fair to Sean, who is thoughtful and was trying to make a specific point:

 

@pottytheron I really am not talking about her score, or the outcome.

— Sean Eddy (@cryptogenomicon) October 20, 2016

and

 

@pottytheron no, and to be clear, I'm not complaining about outcome. I don't think those *particular* critiques are good for the NIH system.

— Sean Eddy (@cryptogenomicon) October 20, 2016

and

The NIH process favors large laboratories. Solo theoreticians have a rough time. But we need theoreticians too. @drugmonkeyblog

— Sean Eddy (@cryptogenomicon) October 20, 2016

Sean felt that these reviews discouraged, significantly discouraged to the point of leaving science, a promising young scientist. He said that these reviews were another straw on the camel's back.

I do not know the person to whom Sean refers, and can't even take a guess at who it might be. But I've seen this story many times. Heck, I've been part of it on both sides. I've given what I thought was a fair review that probably wounded some young scientist to their very core. I remember when I was that scientist. Truly, even in those golden olde dayes, there were NIH rejections, and some of them had unpleasant comments that were a bit beside the point. And a critique to my mother, in the 70's or 80's: Why should we study heart disease in women, since we know how it works in men. This would be a waste of funding. Ah, there has been some progress.

My response here, longer than a tweet is twofold:

First, the substantive claim: that NIH does not care about "small science" or solo-practitioners or small-dogs.  This is just blatantly not true, as much as NIH can be said to "care" about anything. NIH may not prioritize theoretical or small lab, but it does not penalize for it either. I don't have DataHound's data on this, but I have always been small, and I've mentored people who stayed small (one trainee at a time, no tech). They get funded. They do. NIH does support theoretical work. I know theoreticians with funding.  But they publish, even if most of their papers are single -authored. Yes you publish less when you do not have an army generating data for you. But probably one paper every other year is not sufficient, no matter what your science. Please don't tell me about the snowflake nature that makes more than 1 paper every other year impossible. Shades of Maria. It may be wrong. It may be cruel. It may not promote the best science and research. BUT... if you want to survive, get tenure and be part of this world, you must publish.

Second, the response of a junior person to rejection and review comments that range from cruel and hard to silly and stupid. It happens. I would love for this to be a world where we all sing Kumbaya all the time. But its not. Expecting the world to take care of someone's ego is not a good strategy. Sometimes those comments are not meant, delivered or in reality as ugly or nasty as they are perceived. My unvarnished truth (for example, "concerns exist that with this level of productivity, this PI may not be successful if funded") may be your hurtful ad hominem ("I am publishing as much as I possibly can"). Your blisteringly obvious hypothesis is totally opaque to me. Everyone hates peer-review, but damned if I can think of a better system that would be less biased, less idiosyncratic, and produce less garbage at the end.

Everybody gets rejected. Everybody. Again, the world is far from perfect, but if you want to give up after your first rejection, you are not going make it. Your first grant rejection is nothing compared to what is coming your way.

 

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