We recently discussed a President’s column at ASBMB Today by Steven McKnight in which he claimed that NIH grant review panels are contaminated with “riff-raff” who are incompetent to properly review proposals.

A Nature News piece published today notes that McKnight ‘was “saddened” by suggestions that he has any gripe with young researchers or with diversity. He meant to criticize review committees as a whole, not just young scientists, he added.’

Very interesting. He was saddened, apparently, that not enough scientists understood he was calling them riff-raff! It is not only the junior scientists, it is also everybody else that he despises.

“A level of mediocrity has crept into the grant-review system,” he said. He recalled that earlier in his career, grant-review committees were packed with well-known scientists with established credentials. “Now when I look at the list, I’ll know zero names. Five or six of them will be people from fly-by-night biotech companies.” He said that he hasn’t done any quantitative research on this trend, “but I think I’m probably right”.

Let’s just unpack that “I’ll know zero names” business. There is an alternative hypothesis here, which is that perhaps McKnight doesn’t “know” the names of people that he should.

Leaving aside whether or not McKnight actually performed any review of scientific quality per se, let us recall what happens in any age graded social situation. For my US readers in particular, I will remind you of who you “knew the names of” when you were a Freshman in High School or College versus who you “knew the names of” when you were a Senior in those respective environs. I submit to you that, as was my experience, when are looking up the social ranks, you know a heck of a lot more people than when you are looking down the social ranks.

This squares entirely with my direct experiences with my older peers in science. It is not infrequent that I refer to someone I think of as a hot Young Gun of science and the oldster has no idea who I am talking about. Even when the oldster has been impressed by the work that person has done in OtherOldster’s lab but still mentally tags it to the OtherOldster. It is only with time, repetition and further excellence from the Young Gun that my acquaintance oldsters come to “see” the name of the Young Gun.

Note, this can be well into said Young Gun’s independent career as an Assistant Professor.

I am not trying to excuse McKnight’s snobbiness here at all. I am mentioning a common social experience that has to do with the accident of age and relative stature and has essentially nothing to do with relative merits of the people one “knows the name of”.

Given that this is so common, however, you might think one would be hesitant to bray on about people’s merits as a scientist based on whether your rapidly aging (and clearly not the most socially tuned) brain happens to recognize their name.

Note: Just for grins I’m reviewing the panel rosters in the
Integrative, Functional, and Cognitive Neuroscience IRG [IFCN]. These eight panels review a lot of Neuroscience grants. Admittedly I scanned quickly, and did not review the meeting rosters for ad hoc members, but I found zero individuals from biotechs. I also note that the Universities are heavily dominated by the R1s and the non-University Institutions represented are very well known Med schools and Research Institutes. I don’t think I am even above the mean (or 25th percentile, frankly) in being able to recognize names across all of neuroscience…..but even scanning quickly I saw some big names all across these groups.

This may not be comprehensive data either but it sure as heck overmatches McKnight’s “I think I’m probably right” comment.

Is a lab that has 12 or more concurrent postdocs really “training” them?

Is this in and of itself evidence that this is the scientific workforce?

If, say, three-quarters of them ended up in faculty appointments would this change the equation?