Ego balancing

This post is about astro-politics so if you are disinterested in that sort of stuff, please move along and read something more interesting.

I'm pretty low down the ladder when it comes to astronomy and therefore don't have much experience. My hope in writing this post is to elicit some constructive responses from those that are my elders and/or more knowledgeable, to put me right where needed.

Since the great physics funding crisis of 2007/8 I have been trying to get my head around the politics between people, institutions and the main funding council, STFC. Within the funding allocation process is the very admirable idea that projects should be funded based on scientific merit through peer review. I agree with this sentiment. I am also increasingly suspicious that egos play a significant (that doesn't not necessarily mean large) role in it too. This makes me uncomfortable.

In the publication of scientific papers, peer review seems to work fairly well. The person reviewing a paper may reject it but the author usually has chance to request a second (or even third) referee if they feel they were unfairly treated. This doesn't always work but, in general, the checks and balances seem to ensure that papers are published based on their scientific merit. In funding council decisions however, I'm not entirely sure that peer review is implemented in the best way.

As I understand it, the peer review process consists of a panel of astronomers from different institutions deciding on the scientific merit of different proposals. I've heard that when the panel discuss a proposal that involves one of the panel, that person rightly steps outside of the room so that they don't influence the discussion. This is good behaviour as it should, in theory at least, remove the self-interest of that proposal. However, given that overall funding is limited, all proposed projects are competing against one another. That means that there is a vested interest amongst the rest of the panel, not to fund other projects that will compete against any proposals they have submitted. Also, if someone on the panel has a personal dispute with a person/group that submitted a project, it might be expected that they wouldn't be totally objective.

I am being slightly pessimistic here because I'm sure most people behave with professionalism and integrity but I expect the system to be set up in such a way that reduces the chances of these things happening. Of course, there may be mechanisms I am unfamiliar with and that is partly why I write this. My more informed readers can hopefully expand on this below. Are the proposals looked at anonymously (assuming that is even possible)? Is the panel only formed from people who haven't submitted funding proposals of their own? If it is the way I describe, is there any way to make the system better? I must admit that I don't have any suggestions on that front. Suggestions are welcome below. Please be polite.

As a footnote, I'll mention that my job is funded through the process I've described above. That gives me a vested interest. However, and as much as people will disbelieve me, if improving the system meant I lost my job I'd still rather the system was improved. Yes, really.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 18th Feb 2009 (19:21 GMT) | Permalink
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