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It's Scientiae Carnival's first anniversary and skookumchick, Carnival's mother, has chosen renewal as the theme. I've been thinking a lot about renewal lately, especially intellectual renewal. It's soooo easy to get into an intellectual rut; that old "I've done it this way before, it works quite well, trying something new is really risky…." thing.

It's surprising and especially nice when funders worry about intellectual ruts and take some risks to break out of them. Last week I chaired a peer review panel for XXX (a funder who will remain nameless). While I can almost hear you saying "been there, done that; where's the renewal there?", this time it was different. The funder decided to try an experiment. The panel reviewed proposals from two different solicitations; call them A and B. Half of the reviewers were experts in A and the other half were experts in B. I, the chair, was the only reviewer with experience in both A and B.

Reading the two different sets of proposals at home was just hell; but the panel itself was one of the best I've ever been on. Since half the reviewers were not in their field, the other half had to explain. They had to describe theory and previous research and give rationales as to why they liked and didn't like things.

Folks pushed each other—"Tell me more." "Why do you think this…?" were said a lot. Conventional wisdom and underlying assumptions went out the window. And folks challenged each other on that "so and so is so good; they will do a good job regardless of what is in the proposal" thing. Since half the panel had no idea who so and so was, decisions were made based on what was in the proposal, not on who the PI was or in which institution the work would be done. Boy was it fun and I learned a lot.

Thanks funder; please keep experimenting and thanks skookumchick for starting Scientiae Carnival and keeping it going. In many ways Scientiae Carnival is my monthly renewal.


Great idea, but will this work over the long run?

Actually I do; the key is to have a chair who has knowledge in both areas, and the areas need to be related and, oh yeah, the chair needs to respect people from both areas. The results are so much better-- I'm really hoping more funders will consider it.

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