Peer review is a critical process in modern science. Scientists with expertise in the right field judge the quality of a grant application or a manuscript submitted for publication in a journal. This judgment determines whether the grant will be funded, or the paper published. The work that scientists do to perform these reviews is generally done with very little or no recompense – it is considered to be an honorary task that is part of being a member of the scientific community. Without this kind of judgment by peers, science as we know it would be impossible. Are there problems with this system? Yes, of course – but, like democracy, it beats all the alternatives.
The last job I had before retirement was at the NIH. I was one of the five Associate Directors of the Center for Scientific Review, the agency that manages the peer review of most of the 80,000 applications for research grants that come into NIH every year from scientists around the country.
In my role as Director of the Division of Physiological and Pathological Sciences, I had the ultimate authority to approve the academic and other well-respected scientists selected by my subordinates to be members of the peer review panels that would collectively review grant proposals on a range of biomedical research areas. I became an expert in all aspects of this kind of judgment.
The scientists who review grants make their judgments based on their own knowledge and experience, and their verdicts determine whether or not a scientist will get grant funds, which often has a major impact on the financial well being, reputation, and career path of the scientist who applied, as well as on others working in his or her lab.
Judgment is a major theme in the Bible. It is prudent for all those making important judgments to take this responsibility very seriously. It is essential for a Christian to do so, since Christians must follow Scripture when it comes to moral issues like passing judgment. And what does Scripture say? in fact, should humans even act as judges of others, or is that only allowed for God? On first reading, it appears that Scripture answers yes to both alternatives. There are many verses that suggest it is wrong for people to judge one another, or that judgment is the prerogative of God alone:
Do not judge, and you will not be judged. (Luke 6:37)
…you who pass judgment on someone else…are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. (Romans 2:1)
You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? (Romans 14:10)
On the other hand, verses that suggest that people are allowed, and even encouraged, to exercise judgment also abound:
…render true and sound judgment in your courts. (Zechariah 8:16)
Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? (Luke 12:57)
Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? (1 Corinthians 6:2)
So which is it? Are we supposed to judge or not? Actually, I think that Scripture is clear. All the anti-judging verses apply to judgment of people. The pro-judge verses apply to judgment of what people do: their works and actions. A summary might be:
“Do not judge your brother, but do judge what he does and says.”
This solution is also consistent with the dilemma of a Christian making judgments about scientific proposals. Scientists who read the grants or papers of their peers make their decisions on the quality of the work presented – on the clarity of the ideas and their likelihood to be correct. While there is a minor aspect of peer review that relates to the individual applicant or author of a manuscript, even that judgment relates to what the individual has done before — it is not about the individual as a person.
I have never heard a grant reviewer say “The idea is good, the methods are fine, the applicant has a great track record, but I know him and he is a miserable person, so I vote no.” In fact such comments are strictly and explicitly forbidden.
As the new Editor-in-Chief of the magazine God and Nature, I am once again in the position of judging other people’s work. I find the wisdom from Scripture satisfying, because it allows me to make judgments on the work of others in humility and with the knowledge that I am following the will of God, as long as I avoid the trap of judging the basic worthiness of any member of the family of God’s people.
The subject of Judgment and Peer Review will be the focus topic for the Summer 2018 issue of God and Nature, and readers are encouraged to submit essays, stories, poems etc. I promise not to be too judgmental.