Funding/Peer Review: to Ellis Golub

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Thu Dec 14 15:35:29 EST 1995

Dear Ellis Golub:

Thanks for your comments and for joining the discussion
on research funding and peer review.
I dare to provide a few more comments (or clarifications)
to your issues you are raising (please see below).

Alex Berezin 

On 14 Dec 1995, Ellis Golub wrote:

> I've only been following this thread lately, so I've probably missed 
> something important.  
> I think the really injured parties in the research funding lottery 
> are the technical people whose
> jobs are at stake every 3 - 5 years, and who have little or no 
> ability to take charge of their own
> destiny.  In contrast, individuals with Ph.D.'s, from post-docs on 
> up can apply for funding independently,
> and if they are successful, they can do research.  For many of 
> these individuals, their jobs are not at stake, 
> as their salaries come from "hard money".  

Unfortunately, people like Postdocs can't, as a rule,
apply for an independent funding, at least not in Canada.
All posdocs, research associates and (almost) all 
technicians I know of are hired by individual professors
(sometime [but rarely] by 2 or more profs pulling 
money together).

With the exception of some few departmental technicians
who are mostly supervising undergrad.labs, all others
are "soft money", and to make things worse (for them), 
are hired THROUGH the professors. Legally it is likely
a grey area (I think, it is illigal), as professors are
employers themselves. But because it is profitable for
the them (the establishemnet), nobody actively challenges
this status quo. 

Correspondingly, it is largely medieval serfdom system, with 
professors (barons) having almost unlimited and uncontrolled 
power over the serfs (postdocs, grads, technicians, etc).

Paradoxically, in my former country (Brezhnev's USSR), 
this part was socially much better and fair. Grad.students,
and (almost all) technicians were direct employers of
the institutions and much less dependent on the whims of
particular profs. But not in democratic Amerika - on
this points Lincoln's job is not yet quite finished.  

> While you're fixing the Peer Review System, you should provide
> stable employment for technicians, allowing them to become 
>"vested" after some period of time.  

Exactly. But because in the present grantsmanship
system everything (all funding) is grabbed through the
peer-review-based funding machinery, this is almost
impossible to implement. 

(see reference list on peer review in the end of
this file)

> Then, when you've devised the perfect system for distributing 
> the remaining research funds, you can
> assign technician time to funded projects.  This system would 
> have the dual advantage of competitive
> fundings for Ph.D.'s and stable jobs for those who are not 
> empowered to compete for those funds.

All right, but the processes of "competition" needs
to be carefully bracketed - present system does not 
provide required safeguards to make competition
stimulative rather than destructive. 

> In regard to the problem of how to judge research projects for 
> funding, I believe there is no one system
> which can ensure optimum productivity/dollar (bang-for-the-buck).  
> So long as science remains a human
> institution, its administration will be subject to human 
> foibles -- greed, stupidiity, inefficiency, politics,
> prejudice, etc. 

> Like democracy itself, the present Peer Review System (or any 
> replacement system I've seen
> discussed here) is the worst possible system -- except for 
> all the others.

This rephrasing of Churhill is often used by pro-peer
preachers. I personally believe, it is a heavy overstatment.
Even political democracy is an evolving rather than 
a fixed-forether concept. The present APR (anonymous
peer review) system can be fundamentally improved 
along many lines. To deny this is to repeat what 
Brezhnevists been saying to Sakharovs' and likes:
"we know we are not perfect, but we are the best you 
ever can have, an so shut up".    

> While we cannot predict, with any certainty the probability 
> of success of any research proposal, we can try
> to make the system of distributing research funds as fair 
> and as equitable as possible.  In addition, we would
> be wise to use many different criteria for research support, 
> including  (but not limited to) investigator track
> record, present proposed research, institutional needs, 
> programatic needs (directed research), etc.

Completely argee. Diversity of criteria is very 
important, as it diminishes chances of complete 
non-funding (unless you fail on all points).
However, this is what the system does not want
to do as it erodes the power of control of funding
elite and the bureaucracy. 
> In fairness, we should also provide job stability for 
> those whom we employ, and whose lives are the most
> at stake when application/renewal time comes around. 

Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely to happen,
unless there will be massive fight for this 
from those who are affected (cf. the history
of the fall of Roman Empire from slaves' revolts;
I am afraid we light years from this as far as 
the subordinate research positions are concerned).

(see more references of peer review after Tivol's text) 

> In article <4anjs9$iqk at>, tivol at (William Tivol) writes:
> |> 	An intermediate position would be to fund core facilities for many
> |> researchers for lab animals and space shuttles, and then fund researchers
> |> according to track record.  I, myself, do my work within a biotechnological
> |> resource funded by NIH to be used by both in-house and outside researchers.
> |> Anyone with a project which requires our facilities can come and use them
> |> for free (of course, the researcher must pay travel and food/lodging costs,
> |> but we can do preliminary investigating before this to see if the project
> |> will be acceptibly served by the resource).
> |> 				Yours,
> |> 				Bill Tivol
> -- 
> ==============================================================================
> Ellis Golub                            Phone: (215) 898-4629
> Biochemistry Department                FAX:   (215) 898-3695
> University of Pennsylvania             ellis at
> School of Dental Medicine             
> 4001 Spruce Street
> Philadelphia, PA 19104-6003
> ===============================================================================


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