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Chairing a Study Section

Posted on January 14, 2008

F. Xavier Castellanos (bio) recognizes that participation in a study section develops careers and also pushes the process toward a safer science.

 

I have to embrace my inner, perhaps outer, geekdom when I say that I loved being on study section, and I especially loved chairing a study section. It's the fashion to groan about the burdens of being a grant reviewer, but especially for someone who had been in an intramural program at the NIH for ten years and wasn't learning how to write grants, the first grant that I wrote that was funded, they immediately tapped me to be on the study section. Until you get one funded, you're not in the club, but once I had crossed that threshold, they invited me. And I knew I was agreeing to do a lot of work, but it was the most educational experience I could imagine.

And there are errors and injustices that are always — you can point to, but on the whole it is such a well-intentioned and credible process. And the committee that I was a part of was just wonderful. We took the process so seriously, and yet we didn't take ourselves too seriously, and we're all investigators. We know what it's like. That's always the case. But we did the best we could, and we tried to be as constructive as we could.

It's part of the amazing process that one of three reviewers is going to pick up on those sorts of things, and then once they point it out, the others go, "Oh, yeah, I didn't see it." And, in fact, that's a little bit embarrassing, and so that's one of the dynamics in study sections. The reviewers don't want to be embarrassed in front of their colleagues, so that's a little bit why they keep rooting for flaws and for things like that, because you don't want to be the one that missed the really bad error, in part because there's a subtle sort of reputation building that's going on in that room as well. And as I said, that tends to push the process towards a safer science.

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Excerpted from interview with researcher in September 2007.

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