For the last six years before my retirement, I was the Director of the Division of Physiological and Pathological Sciences at the Center for Scientific Review at the NIH. I supervised about 50 PhD scientists, who were responsible for recruiting and managing review panels (“study sections”) of 20 to 30 academic scientists who reviewed about 20,000 grant applications each year.
Among my duties was attendance at many of the meetings, held three times a year, at which about 100 grant proposals were discussed, rated, and voted on. I usually spent just enough time at each study section to make sure things were going smoothly and according to the many rules and policies of the NIH, which is, of course, a governmental agency.
At one of those hundreds of study section meetings I attended during my tenure, things were not going smoothly at all. A bitter and acrimonious debate had broken out between two members of the committee over the value of a grant proposal. A senior scientist, a dean at a prestigious university, was furious with a younger, outspoken woman who had raised questions about the quality of a proposal that the dean thought was outstanding. The argument between the two had begun to get heated when I entered the room. I listened to some of the comments and signaled to my subordinate, who was running the meeting as the federally designated official, to cut off discussion. But when she tried to do so, the dean angrily stood up, shook his fist at his opponent, and said something to her.
I then also got up, announced who I was, and said the meeting was hereby closed. I then told the dean to leave immediately, that the proposal under discussion would be deferred until the next review cycle four months later, and the meeting would reconvene in an hour. The Dean was red-faced and told me I couldn’t throw him out, and did I know who he was? I told him that if he didn’t leave immediately he would be arrested, and I knew exactly who he was since it was I who approved his appointment to the committee, and it would be I who was going to dismiss him from membership.
Now, here is the important part. What he said to the woman, which made me have to take the extremely unusual and drastic steps that I took, based on very clear policy rules, was this:
“Your own work is substandard, so you cannot judge others.”
He didn’t curse her; he didn’t threaten her (that did happen another time, not with me but in another division, and the perpetrator was in fact arrested). He didn’t call her any names, or accuse her of being a liar, or a fraud, or a coward, or a jerk. He didn’t say she was dishonest or a moron, or not a real scientist, or a fool, or vile, or any other direct insult. But he did attack her professional standing, and that is strictly forbidden by NIH policy in the context of a review panel.
It’s no secret that academics do not all love each other, and rivalries and even hatreds are common. But there are rules of discourse that are seldom violated without severe consequences, and direct disparagement is not allowed.
I grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood controlled by the Gambino Family boss, Crazy Joey Gallo. One thing I learned quite early was never to directly insult a stranger, because you never knew who they might be connected to. People on the street were always very polite and friendly… Until they weren’t. But saying F…you to a stranger if he bumped into you was unheard of, and possibly suicidal. I remember arriving at school one morning and seeing a guy hanging on the school fence. He was alive, but not in good shape. The cops came to cut him down as we watched from a distance. Joey Gallo was called crazy for a reason.
So, having a pretty good feel for the advantages of avoiding direct insult, both in the context of living in a Mafia neighborhood, and in that of the high-level scientific peer review of research grants, imagine my reaction when I first came to Twitter and read the comments of people who didn’t agree with me. “Creepy pervert,” “delusional,” “embarrassment to science,” “lobotomized,” “disgusting,” “dishonest,” “under drugs,” and so on.
This was a new world for me. I am not unfamiliar with rough language. As a student, I drove a taxi in Manhattan, and my language is as colorful as that of any other native New Yorker. When appropriate. It’s not appropriate when talking to someone whose uncle is married to the daughter of a capo in the Gambino family. It’s also not appropriate when speaking to a colleague who might very well be reviewing your next paper for publication or in any academic, or scholarly environment.
But apparently it is the way people behave on Twitter. I have finally gotten used to it, and I no longer become enraged. I don’t know if these people all had protected childhoods, have never achieved a level of accomplishment where such expressions of immature and uneducated nonsense are frowned upon, or are simply hiding behind anonymity. But now when somebody calls me an idiot or a fraud, I simply block them and pay no more attention. It’s kind of like throwing them out of the room – my room, at least.