Do Not Send

Recently, I did something I had never done before: I asked a program manager at a funding agency to not send a proposal to a certain individual.

To be honest, I had always thought that excluding people from lists of potential reviewers for papers or proposals reveals a lack of conviction in the merit of the document or a lack of belief in the review process — surely, all scientists are objective! But I finally got over my naivete and did what I probably should have started doing a long time ago, because a couple of proposals and probably more than a couple of papers were likely mishandled by this individual in the past.

When you do work in computer simulation, the system does not exist until you code it up. Your understanding of the physical reality affects what your computer simulation will look like. It can look and act very much like the real system, in many aspects or in a few. It may behave entirely unlike the real system, which means that either you don’t understand the physics well enough, you are having issues coding up the physics, or possibly both. But at no point does it stop being important whether or not you understand the system; at no point does it become solely about having more computational resources. You cannot cure faulty physical assumptions by throwing CPU cycles at the problem.

I don’t think I am being a revolutionary when I say that all numerical techniques are approximate. They all have limits of applicability and accuracy; some of the limits are fundamental, some are computational. We as scientists have to understand the limits and work within the constraints. Throwing enormous resources at a problem is sometimes necessary, but often it is not — the question is what you are after, what question you want to ask of your simulated system. Sometimes, a slingshot is just enough to kill the sparrow. Other times, you do need a cannon, for the problem is a pirate ship… Or a whale.

The individual is a subscriber to the One True Technical Path for all problems in my area. That’s silly, there is no such thing as the one true technique, in principle or practice. Unfortunately, this individual has single-handedly managed to damage the prospects of a number of people who do not subscribe to The Path and is hurting the community because of his strong connections to the funding agencies. I actually feel bad on some level, because I don’t think he’s aware how many people he has managed to piss off and alienate; there are stories circulating about his abuse of the peer review process; I am not the only one who has him listed as someone not to send proposals to; many very smart people don’t want to discuss science with him because they don’t want the hassle.

I am probably crazy to even feel bad for him, because I know he feels underappreciated. But being an a$$hole to everyone around you is not going to win you friends or recognition. Only the unusually creative and original are allowed some eccentricity; mere mortals need to rely on working hard, doing a good and rigorous job, and not becoming someone everyone loves to hate.

Do you have someone on your “Do Not Send To” list?


  1. I wanted to blacklist someone a few times, but never did it out of the fear that anonymity of such request will not be respected, and may need to repercussions.

  2. I can think of a couple instances of this in my field where there is a particular individual that espouses the one true path to the exclusion of all others.

    In my experience, program officers are usually aware of this. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to note this on the exclusion list, particularly if your group is seen as a “rival” group.

    I haven’t actually ever done this for NSF. But in the two cases where I have excluded a reviewer from manuscripts, in both cases the editor sent it to this person in addition to two additional reviewers. In both cases the paper went through, but I was pretty pissed.

  3. TheGrinch, that’s what I was afraid of for a long time. But I found out that there is actually no way I could ever get into this person’s good graces or that he would ever see the error of his ways, no matter what I do or don’t do. Realizing this was actually pretty liberating. So now it’s just damage control and trying to protect myself as best I can.
    I am also not the only one. I saw this morning a really nasty review of a proposal that another colleague, a very smart and good scientist, had received; the proposal was very obviously reviewed by “The Prophet of The Path.” The guy is a real freakin’ piece of work.

  4. I had a similar situation, where the one-true-path person was the editor on both the journals publishing in the field. I thought I could compete by doing better work, but I left that field when the method in one of my rejected papers appeared (mangled to make it look bad) in a conference paper by one of the editor’s students, with the editor as co-author. I complained to the journal, bu they just passed my complaint on to the editor who had stolen the work.

    I left the field as quickly as I could, as did everyone else who wasn’t the editor’s student. The editor successfully killed off the entire field of research.

  5. But how do you know the review was done by that guy? If some one wants to keep you off funding they will probably cook an argument that professes the “real path” science when reviewing your proposal but may not be doing when doing their own science.

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