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In Praise of Peer Review

Like many of my fellow scientists all over the country, I spent a substantial fraction of my holiday "vacation" writing a renewal proposal for my modest National Science Foundation grant.

Although my co-principal investigator and I had been thinking for many weeks about the directions that we wanted to pursue, we had delayed the actual writing until the deadline loomed, until we had the opportunity for a sequence of several uninterrupted, focused 15-hour days during which we could concentrate on this task. We relished the opportunity to read and re-read the related primary literature, seeking to put our work into context. We argued about the best structure to achieve fully the desired properties. We fumed and fussed; we argued about the best reference to illustrate a point and about le mot juste to describe the significance of our proposed work. We chafed over a format change that required specific titles of quoted references, struggling to find alternative sources for information that would have been easily accessible were the libraries not closed for the holidays.

In the end, we produced a document of which we believe we can be proud. The hours of work produced, in our opinion, a fascinating roadmap that will guide our coworkers in the laboratory. It will also inspire them to dream about the day when they, too, whether in academia or in industry, can look forward to spending Christmas vacation writing their own proposals.

Tomorrow, we will submit the proposal electronically, without having generated a single printed page. We will wait for months as electrons fly through circuits, through our nation's information-technology infrastructure, anticipating the verdict of our peers, who will judge whether the productivity of our previous grant and the creativity of the new proposal merit continued financial support from the American citizenry. Although public funds are requested, fellow scientists and technologists, rather than elected politicians, will judge whether this proposed work will advance effectively the frontiers of knowledge and whether it will educate broadly the next generation of innovative scientists. If so, they will recommend that the U.S. taxpayers support the work. What a privilege to contribute, thus, to the best environment for scientific discovery in the world!

We should reflect, though, on what a vote of confidence in science is embodied in our peer-review system. Most Americans recognize that new discoveries and incremental developments in science, engineering and technology drive product innovation and, hence, provide great opportunity for national prosperity and improved quality of life. Even so, they entrust the conduct of most work, and the care and feeding of budding new scientists, to the scientists themselves.

Although the public expects scientists to be accountable for the quality of their work, they understand the need for those competing internationally in the same field to establish priorities, operating under the principle of freedom of inquiry, as they struggle to push back ignorance and to uncover the secrets of nature. The American public has an inherent respect for the value of knowledge and a deep trust in the need for independence from federal patronage and from pork-barrel politics in making most scientific decisions, if the most original and most useful results are to be attained. Under these conditions, science can be conducted for the sake of both science and society. All in all, it is a tremendous privilege to spend one's vacation this way. Having now defined our approach, we can't wait to get to the laboratory to test our ideas!

Marye Anne Fox
President, Sigma Xi

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