#riffraff

In a recent column, American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology President Steve McKnight discussed what he felt was decreased quality of peer review of grants at National Institutes of Health study sections. He provided two main hypotheses for why quality has suffered:

  • The average scientist of today is not of the same quality of those 40 or 50 years ago and, thus, is incapable of adequately reviewing the most creative proposals.
  • If you are not member of the “scientific club” that defines your discipline, it is impossible to get a fundable score.

These hypotheses were presented in a purely anecdotal manner, with no specific evidence to substantiate the claims.

Indeed, former ASBMB President Jeremy Berg stated that no real data exist regarding the quality of peer review over time. Anecdotally, Berg noted that he sees no correlation between scientific stature or career stage and the quality of peer review, and I wholeheartedly agree. There have been other critiques of these two hypotheses by McKnight, so I will not repeat them here.

What I would like to comment on is the derogatory manner in which the column was written. In the course of presenting his case, McKnight made statements such as these:

  • “First, the average scientist today is not of the quality of our predecessors”;
  • “Biomedical research is a huge enterprise now; it attracts riffraff who never would have survived as scientists in the 1960s and 1970s”;
  • “unfortunately, study sections are undoubtedly contaminated by riffraff”; and
  • “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.”

There are other questionable passages throughout the piece, but the labeling of the latest generation of scientists as “riffraff” struck a raw nerve with a lot of people, including me. One wonders what motivated the president of the ASBMB to express himself in this manner. I think the members of the ASBMB and many others in the scientific community would like clarification regarding these comments and an apology.

Eventually, the column took off on social media, resulting in the expression of a lot of anger and resentment. It even spawned several new Twitter hashtags, including #riffraff, #riffraffgate and #iamriffraff. The source of this anger and resentment is clear. The latest generation of scientists has it harder than any before. Paylines are historically low, the postdoc bottleneck is the worst it ever has been, and just publishing a paper requires innumerable supplemental figures and many years of work. If McKnight would listen to the younger generation instead of belittling it, he would realize the incredible talent and potential of those scientists. Most importantly, as president of the ASBMB, he should be functioning as our advocate rather than our critic.

Around the time McKnight’s column was making its rounds on social media, the NIH released a list of BRAIN Initiative grantees. I couldn’t help but think that if these people represent the riffraff that is polluting science today, I am proud to be a part of it. #iamriffraff

Darren Boehning Darren Boehning (Darren.F.Boehning
@uth.tmc.edu) is an associate professor at University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and a co-director of the biochemistry and molecular biology graduate program there. He has been an ASBMB member since 1998.