I start this essay by directing you to the lyrics of a song written by Ron Laskey
, co-discoverer of nuclear localization signals (see box). In the song, Ron laments about the beating of committees, a necessary evil of governance in most all domains of society. Some people gravitate to committees, yet this is not the natural attraction for most of us who love adventure into the unknown of scientific exploration.
The majority of United States scientists involved in biomedical research must win external grant funding in order to practice our craft. The National Institutes of Health is, by far, our most substantive paymaster. We compose our grant applications and then submit them for evaluation via the Center for Scientific Review. After receipt of an application, the CSR assigns it to a review committee commonly called a study section. The CSR organizes and manages hundreds of study sections such that every slice of the pie of our biomedical research enterprise is covered.
Individual grant applications are typically assigned to three reviewers within a study section composed of 20 to 30 scientists. Reviewers read and evaluate their assigned grant applications before the entire committee meets. The study section then, as a committee, systematically ranks all applications as a means of prioritizing those most suitable for funding.
Two or three decades ago, this system was effective, yet I now judge it to be flawed. What went wrong? I submit that the demise of the review process can be attributed to two changes. First, the quality of scientists participating in CSR study sections two to three decades ago was, on average, superior to the quality of study section participants today. Second, study sections have become highly specialized such that they narrowly define a differentiated club of biomedical research.
Let me first offer ideas as to why and how the quality of our scientific review panels has diminished. Thereafter, I will speak to clubs, including thoughts on how they evolved and how they insidiously poisoned our research enterprise.
Among all problems leading to devolution of CSR study sections, the elephantine expansion of the biomedical research complex tops the list. Biomedical research in the 1960s and 1970s was a spartan game. Prototypically, scientists were employed as teaching faculty members at universities. Carving out what time they could manage relative to their primary roles as educators, scientists worked in a focused manner on discrete problems in biology or medicine. They worked with perhaps a single technician or graduate student and needed modest support from external funding sources. The glory of the experience was straightforward: Could a scientist make a discovery? It was that simple. It was not a high-flying game but instead a relatively modest enterprise composed primarily of men and women who practiced science for the right reason – inquiry into the unknown.
Once the budget of the NIH began to grow modestly in the 1970s, it was easy to find highly qualified scientists to staff the study sections. These were practicing scientists who knew how to perform experiments with their own hands. Given that they were also educators, most such scientists were endowed with a breadth of knowledge in biology or medicine or both.
Between then and now, the size of the enterprise has grown by a whopping degree. The budget of the NIH was roughly $1 billion in 1970. Last year, it was $29 billion – a growth of 2,900 percent. It is self-evident that it takes a whale of a lot more reviewers and study sections to distribute $29 billion per year than $1 billion.
Yes, the CSR is able to corral the personnel required to deal with this huge increase in grant evaluation. I submit, however, that the quality of study section membership has eroded significantly. Here are several reasons to explain the erosion.
First, the average scientist today is not of the quality of our predecessors; it’s a bit analogous to the so-called “greatest generation” of men and women of the United States who fought off fascism in World War II compared with their baby boomer children. Biomedical research is a huge enterprise now; it attracts riff-raff who never would have survived as scientists in the 1960s and 1970s. There is no doubt that highly capable scientists currently participate in the grant-review process. Likewise, unfortunately, study sections are undoubtedly contaminated by riff-raff.
A second cause of the demise in study section quality can be attributed to the fact that it is a thankless task balanced by few benefits. Three to four decades ago, it was a feather in one’s cap to be appointed to an NIH study section. When I joined the molecular cytology study section in the 1980s, Bruce Alberts was chairman, and the committee included the likes of Tom Pollard and all kinds of superb scientists. To spend three meetings per year with an esteemed group of scientists was both inspirational to me as a young scientist and of tangible value to my maturation as a researcher.
There are many reasons things have changed. Government restrictions mean that study section participants can hardly get a cup of free coffee. The pay, especially when factoring in the time required to properly review dozens of applications, is pathetic. Career benefit from study section participation for top-tier scientists, young or old, is marginal. Finally, as study sections have become ever more dedicated to thin slices of the biomedical landscape, participants are exposed to less and less science outside of the narrowly defined disciplines covered by their individual study sections. As such, one rarely learns much of anything new by participating in an NIH study section meeting.
Before turning from committees to clubs, let’s consider what might be expected from a grant review committee composed largely of second-tier scientists with limited knowledge of the breadth of biology and medicine. I propose that these committees are equally good at ensuring that the worst and best applications never get funded. They can see a terrible grant wherein the science is flawed and the investigator has no track record of achievement. These committees are, unfortunately, equally good at spotting and excluding the most creative proposals – the grant applications coming from inspired scientists whose research is damned because it is several steps ahead of the curve and damned because it comes from an applicant not blessed with club membership.
Now, to the second of two evils: the evolution of scientific clubs. Back when we used to “walk miles to school,” the scientific meetings we attended had some level of breadth. Among all meetings I attended back in the 1970s and 1980s, the two best were the Gordon Conference on Biological Regulatory Mechanisms and the Arolla Workshop. Both were relatively small meetings, including only perhaps 100 to 150 participants. Despite the small size of these meetings, both sported an intellectually thrilling breadth of scientific scope. One might hear about mobile genetic elements in maize, mating type switching in yeast (where sirtuin proteins came from), UV-mediated release of phage lambda from its lysogeic state, or the genetics of pattern formation in fruit fly embryos. Methods of genetics, biochemistry and molecular biology were applied to zoo- or botanical garden-like distributions of animals, microbes and plants. When one left such meetings, horizons of perspective were broadened. Boy, were those meetings fun.
Fast-forward 30 years, and what do we now have? The typical modern biomedical meeting spends a week on a ridiculously thin slice of biology. There are entire meetings devoted to the hypoxic response pathway, sirtuin proteins, P53, mTor or NFkB. If a scientist studies some aspect of any of these domains, he or she absolutely has to attend these mindless meetings where, at most, some miniscule increment of advancement is all to be learned.
Damn the fool who does not attend these meetings: The consequence is failure to maintain club membership. And why is club membership of such vital importance? Yes, precisely, there is nearly a one-to-one correspondence between these clubs and CSR study sections. To think that a grant applicant would have even a prayer of winning a fundable score from a study section wherein the applicant is not a club member is to be equated with idiocy.
Whether clubs came from committees or vice versa matters not – that is where evolution of our biomedical enterprise has taken us. Upon closing out his presidency in 1960, Dwight Eisenhower offered the cautionary statement, “Beware of the military industrial complex.” I close with a similar warning: Beware of the biomedical industrial complex. In subsequent essays, I will offer ideas on how we might reverse untoward trends.