Procedural Priniciple Versus Outcomes, Open Grant Review, and More on H.R. 3433

Let us strive to be the New Open Transparent Man!
(from here)

Before I get to ranting talking about H.R. 3433, it’s worth reviewing the Mad Biologist’s Pentultimate Political Principle: people have to like this crap. And a corollary of which is, “Stuff has to work.” What with the call for open access publishing (something I support), openness and transparency are all the rage. They are good principles, as they usually lead to good outcomes. But as is the case with many principles, there are circumstances where the consequences of following those principles are harmful and conflict with other principles. Most readers (I hope) wholeheartedly support the principle of freedom of speech, but also realize the danger of shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater.

I received some pushback on my post opposing the identification of peer reviewers in H.R. 3433, and, while doing so, I came across this post calling for universal open review, including grant proposal review (emphasis original):

I am in favor of removing anonymity of reviewers, but because of the second concern mentioned at the outset – that of potential retaliation by angry authors – I think the change should be made at several levels and that as a community we should embrace the following principle: No academic scientific reviewer should have anonymity, regardless of whether the review addresses a manuscript, a grant proposal or a promotion or tenure decision. All academic scientists should be willing to stand behind their opinions regarding manuscripts, proposals and performance appraisals. Transparency should be the order of the day!

In my view, ‘universal transparency’ would greatly dampen the possibility of retaliation because all major opinions affecting a scientist’s ability to be a scientist would be made without the possibility of hiding behind a veil of anonymity. I also believe based on my experience that scientists can generally be trusted to appreciate and respect well argued publication decisions even if they disagree with them, and that the likelihood of retaliation will be no greater, and in fact less, than is already the case.

While well-intentioned, this strikes me as very naive.

Once we start handing out money, as opposed to simply passing judgement, scientists are the least of our worries. Yes, scientists are human, and like all people, we can be petty, close-minded, and even, at times, despicable. But the occasional grant panel misconduct pales in comparison to what will happen, certainly in the U.S., if reviewers are publicly identified. As I discussed in the previous post, the pressure brought to bear on reviewers, both in the form of attacks as well as corruption, will be immense. Anyone who has paid attention to U.S. politics for the last…well, several decades is painfully aware of what will happen. In this anonymity serves to protect the weak from the powerful, and, here, the weak are reviewers and the powerful are politicians and their wackaloon or corrupt fellow travellers.

Keep in mind, we are not dealing with august solons here. We are dealing with highly motivated, ideologically blinkered lunatics. Frighteningly, Senator Coburn is one of the smart ones. Michele Bachmann wasn’t just a member of the Republican presidential primary freakshow, she’s also a congresswoman. Intelligent Designer help us if Congressman Abortionplex decides to take part. After all of the anti-science ludicrousness from the Republican Party, someone try to convince me that I’m wrong, that they won’t use openness to assault politically incorrect science. There is a reason why every Republican on the committee supported H.R. 3433, and Democrats, despite their many failings, opposed it: this legislation would make it open hunting season on reviewers who behave politically incorrectly–that is, accept the existence of wacky things like global warming, or think that we should study HIV infection, even if the study subjects happen to not be ‘good people.’

If you think the internets will rally behind targeted reviewers, they will. Occasionally. For a few. But the bloggerati and twitterati have the attention spans of gnats, while the well-financed interests opposing honest researchers are in it for the long haul. Besides, the brutal reality is that this is not a visceral issue that directly affects most people immediately (even if the long-term consequences are horrible). And just ask any staffer from the Clinton era–many of whom made about as much as a junior faculty member does–how much fun discovery motions are, and how much it costs to lawyer up for them. You think you have nothing to hide? That’s simply a failure of imagination on your part. There are going to be a lot of people abandoned by the wayside (although they won’t be the people advocating for openness….).

But naivety aside, there is also an assumption about scientists and human nature in general which is unwarranted. Why would one believe that the same scumbag scientist who is willing to steal a proposal idea or undercut someone for various petty reasons would not be the same kind of weasel who would quickly knuckle under from political pressure or be highly susceptible to bribery?

The image at the top of the post is a Soviet propaganda poster for the “New Soviet Man”, and the 21st century equivalent, “The Open Transparent Man”, is as realistic. Which is to say, not realistic at all. People sucked yesterday, they suck today, and they will suck tomorrow. And despite whatever bad behavior currently afflicts the grant award system, in this case, the cure–revealing reviewers’ identities–is far worse than the disease.

The principle of openness is a good one. But like many principles, it should not take precedence in all situations. Openness is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.

This kind of naivety is one reason why scientists can’t have as many nice things as defense contractors or the runaway national security state.

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3 Responses to Procedural Priniciple Versus Outcomes, Open Grant Review, and More on H.R. 3433

  1. Joanne says:

    Aren’t these the same people that say the government shouldn’t have to let us know who they’re talking to, otherwise “we can’t get good advice”? The same people who claim that a lack of anonymity removes candor? Why is that true in government, but not anywhere else?

  2. HCA says:

    Without anonymous peer review, I might as well quit reviewing. I’m only a PhD student, and I’ve reviewed about half a dozen papers, evenly split between rejections and acceptances, including rejecting the papers of people of much higher rank than me.

    It’s one thing to hear “your paper fails at X Y and Z” from another prof, and quite another to hear it from someone not even out of grad school yet, even if the reviews are accurate. People have a natural sense of heirarchy, for good or ill, and don’t like those on the lower rungs to get upity.

  3. Pingback: And Just How Do You Think Republicans Will “Get That Money Out” of Global Warming Research? | Mike the Mad Biologist

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