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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 1998

Where's the proof that MRC's 'got it right'

I do not hold a brief for A. Berezin and his coauthors who are quite capable of responding for themselves to the assertion of the new director of the MRC Programs Branch that all is well with the peer review process (Letters, December). However, I would like to comment on some of Dr. Bisby's assumptions.

Where is the evidence that the MRC's existing practices optimally deploy the resources and talents which are available? On Sept. 29 I attended the Toronto Nobel Symposium, where the president of the MRC proudly related council's accomplishments, including the recent Nobel award to Michael Smith. But if MRC operations had been better organized perhaps we could by now have had 20 or more Nobels, instead of a mere handful. Dr. Bisby asserts that, beyond a certain point, cutting maximum grants in order to fund more researchers is counterproductive.

Where is the evidence on this? There should be plenty of data in MRC files permitting an approach to questions such as whether it is more productive to give one researcher $100,000 or two researchers each $50,000.

Dr. Bisby cites the approval of members of an international blue-ribbon panel as unbiased evidence that all is well. However well intentioned, the judgements of such members may have been influenced by the syllogism: "I am an excellent research, the system recognizes that I am excellent, therefore the system must be excellent." Furthermore, the "experts" consulted by the MRC are, more often than not, expert only in a particular area of research specialization, not in peer review.

As Jevons (1973; Science Observed. Allen & Unwin, London) has remarked, asking such people about peer review may be like asking a bird about aerodynamics! In my experience, the knowledge of such experts of the science of peer review is quite elementary. In the 1970s a massive study of peer review was published in the United States, but how many of the "experts" have ever heard of, let alone read, the Kirschstein Report?

Finally, the unkindest cut of all is Dr. Bisby's insinuation that those who press for internal reform of MRC operation are "embittered" by the experience of being unfunded, thus imputing a lack of objectivity. If we are going to have any sort of debate on this subject then such ad hominem arguments must be excluded once and for all.

Biochemistry, Queen's University