You will be judged; your large team research grant will be reviewed

Once I was involved in deciding who would get an important mentoring prize. One of the candidates was from the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. He had many students supporting his nomination. They pointed out how empathetic he was, how willing to spend time with them, and how able to console them when they themselves faced temporary defeat. It was an interesting experience, one that let me into a corner of the world I did not know well, one that is much more hierarchical than my own diffuse field of evolutionary biology, where excellence comes in many forms. Apparently musicians are clearly ranked, first chair, second chair and the like, and everyone knows where they stand.

If you are a scientist, you are unlikely to ever be judged on as linear a scale as musicians, or at least as they appeared to me. But you will be judged. The program you have worked so hard to put together will also be judged, particularly if it is a center of excellence that has received group funding far beyond what individual investigators normally receive. Since I have been involved in judging several programs recently, I thought it might be useful to share some tips, for this judgment is not the same as that of individual investigators.

In the most recent review I did, we decided to break the review into three categories: A) overview, B) progress to date, and C) planning. The overview category let us talk about how good the overall project was. The progress to date section let us talk about what the group was achieving with the new funding. Finally, the planning section let us evaluate what they planned to do next and also point out things they might be careful about. If there were criticisms they would be in this section. To make it simple and consistent, we further broke down what we discussed in each section so we would have parallel structure. The sections were: 1) excellence of the program, 2) value-added collaboration, 3) international visibility and activity, 4) researcher career development, 5) shared expertise and equipment, and 6) impact on society. Below I give these more entertaining names, but remember the numbers if you are confused.

This structure worked really well. It covered all the kinds of things we felt were important. It packed all the advice together in one section (planning). The organizers of the most recent review I did gave us a series of questions, but they were not in an order that inspired clear writing, so we came up with this new order that covered all their points. I should add that one might have a section on fairness if it becomes apparent that one researcher or a set of researchers has managed to monopolize the funds and cut the other team members out. That is another problem entirely, but one that fortunately is rare to find. Here is a little more detail on the six categories.

1. Brilliance: It is essential that the program be excellent to start with, made up of amazing scientists. Otherwise, it is highly unlikely that they would have received a highly coveted, large group grant. The review committee should address this issue. In all the cases I have been involved with, this basically involves reminding everyone how truly exceptional this team is. As scientists we may award weaker groups individual funding now and again, but at the group level the increased scrutiny makes this very unlikely. Reward the hard work of the team with some specific words about how good they are in any review.

2. Adventurousness: This may be the most important of all. The researchers probably know they are pretty darn good, no matter how humble and modest they appear. But the reason we as a society give huge amounts of money to teams is that we want them to do together what they could never have dreamed of separately. In my most recent review effort, my partner was Marlene Zuk, an excellent writer and amazing wit. She is no big fan of the word “synergistic,” but it is hard to avoid for teams. I would have to say I am hard to impress, but I want you to astound me. Show me what you as a team of unlikely participants can do that never would have been thought of. This is best done when the teams truly reach across disciplines, assembling people who never otherwise would have worked together, teams that struggle to understand each other. Then amaze us with your novel work. This happened in my recent reviews, both in the Center of Excellence in Biological Interactions that I just visited and at Michigan State University, where they have a huge program called Beacon: Evolution in Action. Both programs are doing phenomenally new things that will greatly change our understanding of life.

Why the emphasis on scientific diversity? You see, we each bring our own history, our own biases, and our own expertise to a problem. Bringing different people together is not easy, for we don’t often speak entirely the same language and I’m not talking about English and Finnish. So, what exactly is the result? It could be a sudden understanding that conflicts of interest in humans have a lot in common with conflicts of interest in viruses. Both have tragedies of the commons. It could be looking at experimental evolution in many different systems, including artificial ones. What if life itself originated with viruses and their ability to privatize goods with capsid proteins? What if the best system to understand cooperation is not any of the usual suspects, but aposematism in moths? What if humans can keep from entirely destroying the world only by figuring out how to protect public goods? What if the secret to these kinds of questions comes from a really clear understanding of how unicolonial ants evolve?

Well, put all those people in the same room. Encourage them to talk to each other, to work together, for empiricists to share their techniques and theoreticians to delve into new areas and you will leave with the kind of buzz that is why we love science so much, why we are not sure what to say when people talk about work life balance, because isn’t the best part of life really in scientific discovery? I hope you don’t think I’ve become raving mad, but just have a high from spending a dizzy week with some of the best scientists in the world. Clearly, these people were reaching across normal disciplinary boundaries. What was easy for one was hard for another. A big grant threw them together. Each had a story to tell us of things they were doing they never imagined possible. This is what reviewers of big grants want to hear.

3. Globalism: We considered international visibility and activity. This was more of a topic in Finland than in the US, but it is important everywhere. Science is international. This is also an area where different perspectives come in. I’ve written before about how often when I am considering an eminent person’s career, I discover international roots. Richard Dawkins, Bill Hamilton, and Dave Hillis, come to mind and there are many others. There are also people so exceptionally creative they can think in novel ways without having been primed by international experiences. Whatever our ages, we benefit from international experience and contacts. We should attend international meetings, publish in international journals, and assemble international research groups. This might be easiest at the post-doctoral level, but we always look hard for international excellence at all levels.

4. Care for the pups: The fourth thing we looked at was how every level was cared for and mentored. Being a Ph.D. student is very different from running an international research team. Sometimes we forget what information might stimulate them to do something new that there are funds for, had they realized it. Someone needs to tend to the young, for they are the future of the field. In the latest review we did, we asked for short written comments from everyone, so even the quiet ones would let us know how they were doing and how the interdisciplinary group was stretching them. Never forget mentorship. Never forget that in euphoria of discovery, you need to extend your hand to the newest person on the team and be sure they are happily doing their best by teaming up with new people. This may be particularly important for keeping women in science and for encouraging diversity. If you have grown up knowing what academics do and do not do, it is much easier than if this is a foreign field. Share and ask. We may not even know what would be valuable to others, so listen.

5. New toys. We looked for shared expertise and equipment. If you can’t measure it, you can’t discover it. There was a time when I thought the brain was all-powerful and we could imagine anything. Now I’d almost rather be the person with the new tool, running around and measuring things that never before could be measured. Our new tools involve genomes, or knocked out genes, or detailed new microscopy. But there are many others. An international collaborative group shares its toys, its tools, and its knowledge of how to use them. New ideas and ways of using the tools will result.

6. The rest of society. This can be so much fun, it is hard to remember that there are people out there who could benefit from research who are not actually themselves scientists. Participate in the education of children and teenagers. Develop products that help them discover the joy of discovery, or the importance of evidence. Let them understand that there is a truth out there and we have ways of discovering it. In countries like the US, this may influence how they vote. Teach them to use their brains in ways that will delight them. Other ways of helping involve solving world problems, whether they be diseases in fish farms or ways of combatting evolving rapidly evolving viruses.

Make your research understandable to the public with popular articles, with tabs on your web page that tell what you have figured out, and by attending to the Wikipedia pages on topics related to your expertise. Even research that is not immediately applicable to solving human problems can be relevant. After all, across the world, it is generally the public that puts its tax dollars behind research. Help people understand why.

OK, so these are the six areas I think are important for programs to excel. It may seem like there isn’t enough attention here to the plain brilliance of the research, but remember, that is a large part of why you got the funding. What we want to see now is that you are executing the project in ways that benefit everyone maximally. We want to see the value added from having a big, networked program. It requires more organization, more administration, more time spent exploring new areas, and more time spent bringing new people you might not have thought of into the group. The idea is that the extra effort has to be worth it. It is why funding agencies in lots of countries, reserve some of their research funds for these programs. Some, not all. There is still a need for the individual investigator, of course.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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