Striving for Creativity

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Science  28 Jun 1996:
Vol. 272, Issue 5270, pp. 1857b-1861b
DOI: 10.1126/science.272.5270.1857b

My joy in seeing the title of Eliot Marshall's article “NIH panel urges overhaul of the rating system for grants” (News & Comment, 31 May, p. 1257) turned to dismay when I read that members of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) panel evaluating the peer-review system “left innovation out,” according to Hugh Stamper (extramural research director at the National Institute of Mental Health), “because it seemed a bad idea to suggest that every grant should strive for creativity.” The current very low proportion of funded grants coupled with a rating system subject to a ceiling effect effectively results in a blackball system: Even one disgruntled evaluator can knock a proposal out of the competition. Many scientists have deplored an evaluative system that they have seen as implicitly rewarding grant proposals that are not objectionable to anyone passing judgment, rather than proposals that are highly creative and therefore likely to offend at least some vested interest (1). The recommendation of the panel makes explicit what before had been implicit—the institutionalized view that scientific creativity is not a necessary condition for a grant's being reviewed favorably. Yet, the research that has mattered in science has always been that which is creative and thus often defies existing conventions. There is a problem with the rating system at NIH, but fixing the rating system won't fix the larger problem of priorities that fly in the face of the history and philosophy of science.


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