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Sanity and Civility in 2011: What Jon Stewart Can Teach Us

Karen M. Emmons, PhD, Society of Behavioral Medicine President

OK - I admit it - I'm a big fan of Jon Stewart. I enjoy his witty, pointed, and honest efforts to shine a light on the issues facing our country. I especially appreciate his willingness to take on the power hierarchy - from both sides of the political aisle - in a civil and thoughtful manner. I had real twinges of jealousy hearing stories from our colleagues in DC who participated in the Stewart and Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity. Over 200,000 people came out to make a statement about the way in which we treat each other in the context of political discourse (OK, and to see some great comedy too . . .).

A week before the rally occurred, I served on a Scientific Advisory Board, and was chatting with another member who is a basic scientist. We were talking about the economy and the funding climate, anticipating the mid-term elections and the impact that they might have on the NIH budget. Most of us have had many of these types of conversations over the past months. But what was truly shocking to me about this conversation was my colleague's prediction about behavioral science in a more austere funding climate - "You guys are doomed", he said. Of course, I immediately steeled myself for a fight, ready to justify why our work makes a significant contribution to the nation's health. But before I could utter the first word of my defense, he said "This is the worst possible time for a field to beat up on itself so badly and routinely as you guys do." Then I truly was speechless, because he was right. Even basic scientists can see that behavioral scientists often go beyond rigor - go beyond ensuring strong science - and simply beat each other up. I have since reflected on the many times that I've sat on study sections and seen a proposal judged harshly because the PI is approaching a problem differently than the reviewer would, or uses a different theory than the reviewer prefers. And when I talk to colleagues about this issue, they all have stories about similar experiences, where they felt that strong behavioral science was judged more harshly within our field than is typical in other disciplines.

We have a very strong science tradition, and strong scientific methods. We do rigorous work, and contribute to the understanding of human disease and its prevention. So why do we so often nitpick in grant reviews, poorly scoring grants in which every detail that we as a reviewer could think of is not provided? Why are we willing to fall back on our own case examples of things we've tried but didn't work as evidence that someone else can't do it better? And why do we sometimes push back on innovation as being too risky or radical? Is it because we are trying to prove ourselves? We've already done that, and have a large and profound body of work to demonstrate that. Is it because it was hard for us, back in the days when behavioral science was not well-accepted, and we don't want to let those behind us off the hook? Well, it's pretty hard now, and no doubt will be even harder in the next few years because of the pressure on the federal budget. If we don't bring the next generation along, the foundation of the science that we have built will crumble, as these young behavioral scientists are forced into other careers.

I have had so many conversations about this issue over the years - I imagine that just about every one of us who is NIH-funded has experienced this either as an applicant or as observer on study section. In fact, I believe that it happens often enough that we have accepted it as fact. I also believe that together we can address this serious problem that vexes our field. So what can we do? I pondered this question with your President-Elect, Abby King, and we came up with some very concrete and manageable actions. First, if you share these concerns, volunteer to serve on study section, and work on changing these behaviors. If other reviewers start to go down this field-defeating path, push back on scientific grounds. Ensure that strong science does not get beaten down. Second, if you're currently on study section, consider your own and your fellow members' behavior. Work on changing the culture from the inside. Third, if you observe these behaviors when on study section, convey them to the SROs and study section Chairs. I've had informal conversations with many of these individuals over the years, and many do see the issue. They need this feedback to be able to address and shape the discussions that occur. Fourth, as you write your own grants, put more time into making arguments for the significance/innovation of your work. This will shift the focus from methodological detail, which is harder to fully convey in the shorter grant format, onto significance, which will give reviewers the ammunition they need to make the case for the importance and impact of your work. You may have other ideas as well - please send them to me and we can keep this dialogue going through our new website.

The new NIH review criteria gives us only one opportunity for revision. In addition, in the new bulleted review format, reviews can sometimes be cryptic which makes it even harder to address concerns in a revision. Yes, we must be rigorous and must maintain the strong scientific foundation that we have worked so hard to build. But let's also take a page from Stewart and Colbert and be civil, constructive, and generous of our knowledge and experience. It's important for the health of our field. And the health of the nation depends on it.