From the LabLit short story series

João Ramalho-Santos 13 August 2018

I now think of researchers as a flock of naïve idiots who stare lovingly into their bellybuttons

It’s been a common feeling in my later years: realizing that although I may be part of a solution, more often than not, I’m firmly immersed in the problem.

In brief, and going to the essence of that feeling: turning into one’s elders.

After many internal monologues trying to fight the evidence, these usually end with the confession that I’m trying – hopefully at least – to become a better version of my elders. While previously I believed managers and directors to be a bunch of banality-spouting imbeciles who wouldn’t recognize a visionary idea if it knocked on their door and slapped them in the face, I now think of researchers as a flock of naïve idiots who stare lovingly into their bellybuttons, have no clue what implementing ideas costs (not just in financial terms), and who should be forever grateful that someone else is taking care of the nuts and bolts that allow the lights to turn on every day.

These days my bipolar nature makes me oscillate between these two wonderful visions. One day a managerial colleague will point out that I am also a researcher, when I bitch about scientists who only worry about their own narrow topic under study. The next, one of my research group members reminds me that I am also a manager, when I complain about the stupid rules management is enforcing.

Moronic either way: I can’t lose.

The same goes for grant proposals, those meticulously crafted pieces of our soul that get sent out to be butchered by panels of so-called “experts”. How dare those people criticize my extremely original ideas? They either don’t understand them, or must be jealous! And where do those woeful scores come from? It must be a conspiracy! At any rate, who are those nincompoops?

Well, starting a few years ago I could answer some of those questions – when I was invited to join a panel that analyzed grant proposals. I can now positively identify one nincompoop: just look in the mirror.

Why do I put myself through this, you might ask? Because its either that or complain about the “system” forever, and sit tight while other nincompoops do stuff.

So, I accepted the invitation, got my assignments online, read the proposals again and again, researched the background, wrote preliminary reports. Reports that were infused with, I hoped, reasonable blends of polite skepticism and wonder at ideas that I would never have thought of myself (and which that menacingly worded confidentiality agreements forbade me steal). When the time came, I left for Lisbon to attend the Panel Meeting, nervous as the first time I had given a talk, submitted a paper, presented a poster.

It was a Bioengineering Panel, and the first panic moment had happened months ago, when the list of members had been sent out, and I realized I knew none of the other panelists. But All-Seeing Google and his nerdy brethren PubMed, ORCID, ResearchGate, and Scopus had taught me well, and a file with pictures and short bios was discreetly available. What were they going to do anyway? Bite?

Settling into the discussion proved to be easier than I had thought. There were too many proposals, which led each member to be a primary reader on several of them before a general discussion where all inconsistencies should be hammered out and justice, prevail, or as much as subjectivity allowed. The meeting mainly involved normalizing the scores for each proposal. Some panelists had been consistently more generous, some less so; some were more amenable to adjusting their scores, some less so. But, all in all, the afternoon flowed quietly, and I found myself learning a lot on the bioengineering and industrial sides of things, or giving basic cell biology tutorials; figuring out I had scored too highly or too lowly proposals I had not actually fully understood, showing colleagues that they had done the same with others. What one reviewer might have thought extremely original or important, to another was either banal or un-doable. Debates ignited, but were resolved without much to report.

The scoring of each proposal was made up of several items with distinct weights, most related to the project itself, a few key ones to the Principal Investigators; what their track records were, if they had the experience (or the appropriate collaborations) to follow through. It went without saying that a lot of the data that the project proposed to obtain (especially what was shown as “preliminary data”) was already finalized, and that this grant was probably going to be useful to do some other related project. This is something I had been a bit shocked to learn (the hard way, via my own grant proposals, obviously), but now I knew it was just part of the game: nothing says the project is doable better than hinting that it had already been done. You won’t do “blue-sky science” perhaps, but you might just survive as funds decrease and the sharks swim ever closer.

We had been given a nifty spreadsheet where marks and specific comments about different aspects of the proposal were added in appropriate boxes, which the program concatenated into a final grade and opinion to discuss within the panel until consensus (or tiredness) prevailed. One of our engineering colleagues had obviously delighted in programming the thing. Given that the panel Chairperson had chastised me for being too generous on grades, I was going through everything to make sure a grant wasn’t being given (or denied) merely out of luck in panel assignments. Later I would tell myself that this was why I had missed the start of that particular debate, until the levels of acrimony became too intense to ignore.

As I looked up from my laptop, two panelists were hotly arguing, with all others seemingly in the process of choosing sides.

But on what point of contention, exactly? Were they talking about some sort of model system? A technological platform? Some sort of biomaterial? A device? A metal coating for an electrode? A bacterium that had been modified to make gas out of woodchips, or “more organic” yogurt? An algorithm for whatever Big Data purpose? A stem cell bioreactor? A breed of goat that made milk expressing the spider web silk gene? A cutting-edge ionic liquid? Or maybe just a weird engineer acronym?

At any rate: what on earth was “alirium”?

The word kept bouncing around, from one panelist to another. “This proposal is better than the one with alirium”. “Sorry to disagree, alirium has to be the benchmark here”. Alirium this, alirium that. Apparently, this “alirium” was being used to compare proposals.

Caught between an urge to ask Brother Google for help, and the instinct to participate in an obviously key discussion, I did the worst possible thing. I let my pure scientist side take over. I asked a question. Loudly.

“Excuse me! What are we talking about? What is this alirium stuff?”

Stunned silence, google-eyed looks of disbelief.

I might as well have inquired on the importance of Darwin. Or gravity. Worse of all was the pity seeping through every face, commiserating on my ignorance. Or, perhaps more forgivingly, letting it slide because I was “just” a biologist; which would be far worse. The Chair (who was surely wondering if a clause for dealing with slow colleagues had been in the contract with the Funding Agency she had neglected to read before signing) put me out of my misery.

Turns out “Alirium” (spelled in a totally different way; not even Google would have helped) was the main authority on a crucial subject for several proposals, some of which he was a team member of, some of which, and that had been the rub, he was not. Don’t ask me what the subject was; I hadn’t evaluated any of those proposals (obviously), and my traumatized mind banned it from memory as soon as the Chair finished with: “So, you see, we really need to take him into account here”. Talking slowly and precisely, engineer-speech for dummies.

As much as my ego was slowly sinking into oblivion, I had the sudden urge to do an experiment. This “Alirium” was clearly a fixture in the national bioengineering community. But did engineers know about the key cell biologists and neuroscientists in the country? The ones whose proposals were probably being evaluated by other Panels throughout the building? I dealt out the names of several of my colleagues, the so-called Stars (notably by themselves).

But my panelists colleagues just shrugged, unimpressed. Not their fields, not their cups of tea, not their household names. One said, hopefully, that they knew me, but only because they had done some research before the meeting.

Now I was getting a bit angry. “My” field (if I did dare to say so myself) made up 30% of all papers in the country, and most of the high impact ones. At the very least they should know my former Director, and still de facto boss: she has just received a Presidential Award for Merit in Science! The start of our meeting had been delayed so that all the Panels currently evaluating proposals could attend. Surely, they must recognize her name.

They, un-apologetically, did not. Instead, the Chair (and everyone else) smiled, and she said, “There were seven Presidential awardees… Besides your boss, how many did you recognize?”. Two, I admitted, they were in the news a lot, also into politics. The Chair almost whispered, her face contorting in pre-hysterical laughter.

“Well, 'Alirium' was the guy on the far left!”

As all my colleagues burst out laughing, the Administrative aid in charge of the panel agenda politely suggested it was time for the coffee break. Later she would come over, pat me on the shoulder, and commiserate in our common ignorance, although hers, the only other person in that room who did not know “Alirium”, was justified.

I realized immediately I had provided the best lasting memory of this day, securing myself the role of protagonist in the meme “The Weird Biologist Guy who did not know Alirium”. But as I fiddled with my laptop to be the last person to leave, another idea crept in. The members of Biomedicine Panel next door, who certainly would revere my boss’s name, probably had no idea as to who “Alirium” was either. And had the Archeology and Historical site preservation specialists ever heard of either? What about the Psychologists? The Sociologists? The Jurists? The Epidemiologists?

As I tried to figure out which panels were meeting that day, I understood I had an experiment to do during the coffee break. Before I could sit back, analyze the data, and figure out a way to write this whole thing up.

Related information

© 2018 by the author; story dedicated to all members of the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) Panels he has ever been a part of

Other articles by João Ramalho-Santos