Big Pitch or Big Lottery? The unenviable task of evaluating the grant review system

This week’s issue of Science has an interesting article on The Big Pitch–a pilot NSF initiative to determine whether anonymizing proposals and dramatically cutting down their length (from 15 pages to 2) has a substantial impact on the results of the review process. The answer appears to be an unequivocal yes. From the article:

What happens is a lot, according to the first two rounds of the Big Pitch. NSF’s grant reviewers who evaluated short, anonymized proposals picked a largely different set of projects to fund compared with those chosen by reviewers presented with standard, full-length versions of the same proposals.

Not surprisingly, the researchers who did well under the abbreviated format are pretty pleased:

Shirley Taylor, an awardee during the evolution round of the Big Pitch, says a comparison of the reviews she got on the two versions of her proposal convinced her that anonymity had worked in her favor. An associate professor of microbiology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Taylor had failed twice to win funding from the National Institutes of Health to study the role of an enzyme in modifying mitochondrial DNA.

Both times, she says, reviewers questioned the validity of her preliminary results because she had few publications to her credit. Some reviews of her full proposal to NSF expressed the same concern. Without a biographical sketch, Taylor says, reviewers of the anonymous proposal could “focus on the novelty of the science, and this is what allowed my proposal to be funded.”

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to interpret the divergent results of the standard and abbreviated review. The charitable interpretation is that the change in format is, in fact, beneficial, inasmuch as it eliminates prior reputation as one source of bias and forces reviewers to focus on the big picture rather than on small methodological details. Of course, as Prof-Like Substance points out in an excellent post, one could mount a pretty reasonable argument that this isn’t necessarily a good thing. After all, a scientist’s past publication record is likely to be a good predictor of their future success, so it’s not clear that proposals should be anonymous when large amounts of money are on the line (and there are other ways to counteract the bias against newbies–e.g., NIH’s approach of explicitly giving New Investigators a payline boost until they get their first R01). And similarly, some scientists might be good at coming up with big ideas that sound plausible at first blush and not so good at actually carrying out the research program required to bring those big ideas to fruition. Still, at the very least, if we’re being charitable, The Big Pitch certainly does seem like a very different kind of approach to review.

The less charitable interpretation is that the reason the ratings of the standard and abbreviated proposals showed very little correlation is that the latter approach is just fundamentally unreliable. If you suppose that it’s just not possible to reliably distinguish a very good proposal from a somewhat good one on the basis of just 2 pages, it makes perfect sense that 2-page and 15-page proposal ratings don’t correlate much–since you’re basically selecting at random in the 2-page case. Understandably, researchers who happen to fare well under the 2-page format are unlikely to see it that way; they’ll probably come up with many plausible-sounding reasons why a shorter format just makes more sense (just like most researchers who tend to do well with the 15-page format probably think it’s the only sensible way for NSF to conduct its business). We humans are all very good at finding self-serving rationalizations for things, after all.

Personally I don’t have very strong feelings about the substantive merits of short versus long-format review–though I guess I do find it hard to believe that 2-page proposals could be ranked very reliably given that some very strange things seem to happen with alarming frequency even with 12- and 15-page proposals. But it’s an empirical question, and I’d love to see relevant data. In principle, the NSF could have obtained that data by having two parallel review panels rate all of the 2-page proposals (or even 4 panels, since one would also like to know how reliable the normal review process is). That would allow the agency to directly quantify the reliability of the ratings by looking at their cross-panel consistency. Absent that kind of data, it’s very hard to know whether the results Science reports on are different because 2-page review emphasizes different (but important) things, or because a rating process based on an extended 2-page abstract just amounts to a glorified lottery.

Alternatively, and perhaps more pragmatically, NSF could just wait a few years to see how the projects funded under the pilot program turn out (and I’m guessing this is part of their plan). I.e., do the researchers who do well under the 2-page format end producing science as good as (or better than) the researchers who do well under the current system? This sounds like a reasonable approach in principle, but the major problem is that we’re only talking about a total of ~25 funded proposals (across two different review panels), so it’s unclear that there will be enough data to draw any firm conclusions. Certainly many scientists (including me) are likely to feel a bit uneasy at the thought that NSF might end up making major decisions about how to allocate billions of dollars on the basis of two dozen grants.

Anyway, skepticism aside, this isn’t really meant as a criticism of NSF so much as an acknowledgment of the fact that the problem in question is a really, really difficult one. The task of continually evaluating and improving the grant review process is not one anyone should want to take on lightly. If time and money were no object, every proposed change (like dramatically shortened proposals) would be extensively tested on a large scale and directly compared to the current approach before being implemented. Unfortunately, flying thousands of scientists to Washington D.C. is a very expensive business (to say nothing of all the surrounding costs), and I imagine that testing out a substantively different kind of review process on a large scale could easily run into the tens of millions of dollars. In a sense, the funding agencies can’t really win. On the one hand, if they only ever pilot new approaches on a small scale, they never get enough empirical data to confidently back major changes in policy. On the other hand, if they pilot new approaches on a large scale and those approaches end up failing to improve on the current system (as is the fate of most innovative new ideas), the funding agencies get hammered by politicians and scientists alike for wasting taxpayer money in an already-harsh funding climate.

I don’t know what the solution is (or if there is one), but if nothing else, I do think it’s a good thing that NSF and NIH continue to actively tinker with their various processes. After all, if there’s anything most researchers can agree on, it’s that the current system is very far from perfect.

de Waal and Ferrari on cognition in humans and animals

Humans do many things that most animals can’t. That much no one would dispute. The more interesting and controversial question is just how many things we can do that most animals can’t, and just how many animal species can or can’t do the things we do. That question is at the center of a nice opinion piece in Trends in Cognitive Sciences by Frans de Waal and Pier Francisco Ferrari.

De Waal and Ferrari argue for what they term a bottom-up approach to human and animal cognition. The fundamental idea–which isn’t new, and in fact owes much to decades of de Waal’s own work with primates–is that most of our cognitive abilities, including many that are often characterized as uniquely human, are in fact largely continuous with abilities found in other species. De Waal and Ferrari highlight a number of putatively “special” functions like imitation and empathy that turn out to have relatively frequent primate (and in some cases non-primate) analogs. They push for a bottom-up scientific approach that seeks to characterize the basic mechanisms that complex functionality might have arisen out of, rather than (what they see as) “the overwhelming tendency outside of biology to give human cognition special treatment.”

Although I agree pretty strongly with the thesis of the paper, its scope is also, in some ways, quite limited: De Waal and Ferrari clearly believe that many complex functions depend on homologous mechanisms in both humans and non-human primates, but they don’t actually say very much about what these mechanisms might be, save for some brief allusions to relatively broad neural circuits (e.g., the oft-criticized mirror neuron system, which Ferrari played a central role in identifying and characterizing). To some extent that’s understandable given the brevity of TICS articles, but given how much de Waal has written about primate cognition, it would have been nice to see a more detailed example of the types of cognitive representations de Waal thinks underlie, say, the homologous abilities of humans and capuchin monkeys empathize with conspecifics.

Also, despite its categorization as an “Opinion” piece (these are supposed to stir up debate), I don’t think many people (at least, the kind of people who read TICS articles) are going to take issue with the basic continuity hypothesis advanced by de Waal and Ferrari. I suspect many more people would agree than disagree with the notion that most complex cognitive abilities displayed by humans share a closely intertwined evolutionary history with seemingly less sophisticated capacities displayed by primates and other mammalian species. So in that sense, de Waal and Ferrari might be accused of constructing something of a straw man. But it’s important to recognize that de Waal’s own work is a very large part of the reason why the continuity hypothesis is so widely accepted these days. So in that sense, even if you already agree with its premise, the TICS paper is worth reading simply as an elegant summary of a long-standing and important line of research.