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bias in peer review?

C. Boake cboake at utk.edu
Thu Jun 5 13:16:07 EST 1997

In article <3394C7FE.6949 at vasilisa.com>, violette at vasilisa.com wrote:

> I think we should call for an investigation of the NSF right
> away. I'm very serious about this. Peer review decisions are
> often life-altering decisions, women are having their entire lives
> rearranged and deformed by this system.

I'm startled that a study in Sweden would lead you to wish to investigate
NSF, which doesn't fund Swedish research. What evidence do you have of
bias at NSF? NSF panels have periodic evaluations by a "board of
visitors."  One of the assessments that they make is whether there is
detectable sex bias in the awards granted.  I have not read one of these
evaluations (don't know if they are public, but I hope that they are), but
I have spoken to women who have served on the boards.  An examination of
these statistics would serve to show whether women were being funded in
proportion to their rate of application.

The head of the Biology Division at NSF is Mary Clutter.  Within Biology,
there are very many women Program Directors (you can find their names at
nsf.gov), and panel meetings are far from a casual good-ole-boy
gathering.  I have served on the Dissertation Improvement Grants Panel and
on the Animal Behavior Panel.  I have not encountered evidence of either
overt or covert sex or racial bias in the reviews that I have read or the
discussions that I have heard.  The reviewers' identities are not
anonymous to panelists, and possible biases are taken into account during
panel discussions.  The great weakness of peer review is that returning
the review is optional; we are stuck with whatever we receive.  Women can
increase their voice in the peer review process by being diligent
reviewers who return the reviews by the due date.  

If you are worried about  biases in funding, and about the quality of
science being funded, you might consider the huge budgets of USDA, various
military research programs, EPA, and the like.  Many of those groups have
no peer review for vast areas of research funding.


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