What’s the point of an external scientific advisory committee?

A couple of weeks ago a lot of very busy and amazing scientists spent a lot of time preparing for a day with their external scientific advisory committee. They gave talks, organized meals, showed us lots of charts about who they are, how they spend their money, what they are discovering, and how many times they get cited. What is the point? After all, this is a group of great scientists who came together and won in an extremely competitive funding climate. Why should the five or so of us have to get together once a year and check out what they are up to?

Perhaps the best way I can explain it is the story of the house we built in Houston. About 25 years ago we bought a lot. We knew what we wanted because we lived already in a nearly perfect but too small home. We met with an architect and designed the new home, large and simple, for a family with three kids. Then we hired a builder.

At this point I figured we were largely done. After all we had blueprints and we had someone to execute them. But everyone we talked to said we had to visit the site every day and see how the building was progressing. I did this though I didn’t understand. Suddenly I understood. The thing is, the blueprints were not perfect. They had walls but no ducts. The front drawn profile did not match the rafter layout. Decisions had to be made. We had strong opinions on some of them. If we had not been there, we would not have ended up with the home we desired.

An external scientific advisory committee also checks for the match between the blueprint, the funded grant proposal, and the execution of the project. What we do is see if they are doing what they said they would do.

This might sound simple, for these are great scientists. But there will always be cases where things do not go according to plans, so they have to do things differently. Did the scientists make the best choices, the committee asks. To figure this out, the scientists need to share as much as possible with the committee.

Only large, complex groups warrant an external advisory committee, so another task of the committee is to be sure that the minority voices are heard. Are the researchers hiding anything? Is there dissatisfaction? Are data grouped in ways that conceal? I’m guessing big problems are rare, but there was one on a grant I oversaw a few years ago, a really huge deviation.

One thing that is important for an external advisory committee to remember is that this is not their project. They don’t get to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the original plan, just whether it is being followed and whether the deviations make sense.

I think having an outside opinion is always a good idea. I hope we helped and I wonder if I could have some kind of overview in another way on my own small grants projects. I heard of someone who had something like a board of directors for her life. What an interesting idea. I guess usually parents, siblings, friends, and even children are the boards of directors for our lives. This is the time of year they get really active, too!

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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
This entry was posted in Broader Impacts, Business meetings, Grants, Research and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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