An interesting ethical dilemma has emerged again today.
I received a request from a European funding agency to review a proposal (it's a 5-pager with a pretty big budget requested, which made me want to pack up and move back to Europe stat, but that's perhaps material for a different post). The proposal is from a PI I know superficially; the group does very good work and is quite large.
Here's the issue: they are getting into the subfield I work in and the proposal is exactly on the same type of stuff that I am currently working on with my postdoc, a couple of students, and a few collaborators. On some of the problems they propose to explore we already have paper drafts. But, the group is large and I am sure they can move pretty quickly into whichever direction they choose, which does make them serious competition.
So the obvious question is: how does one -- if at all -- evaluate such a proposal?
Option 1: Recuse myself as I have a conflict of interest. A downside is that I am probably one of the most qualified persons around to evaluate this proposal for technical merit precisely because I currently do closely related work.
Option 2: Simply evaluate the proposal as objectively as possible, focusing on the technical merit, originality, novelty, etc., and try really, really hard to put aside all consideration of competition/scooping. Keep repeating "They do good science, I will evaluate the science. I will be objective, I will be objective..."
Option 3: Kill the proposal and never think about it again. It's nice to be able to eliminate competition by cutting their lifeline! *mwahahahaha*
Whenever something like this happens, I always do either 1 (if I really feel I would be negatively predisposed to a paper or a proposal simply because I think the person is a jerk or I do feel we are in too direct a competition) or 2 (when I feel that I am able to be objective and do not have strong negative feelings about the proposer). I think 1 and 2 are the only ethical things to do.
But, sometimes you receive these irrationally hostile and largely unfounded proposal or paper reviews. I know several people in my field who are notorious as someone who will kill your work just because they can, and they seem not to have any qualms about doing so regardless of the proposal's or paper's merit. I am pretty sure I can identify one proposal reviewer on my recent declined NSF grant who has always gone out of his way to be an ass to me, and is universally known as quite dangerous. So perhaps I am being a dumb and naive Goody Two-Shoes and it really is eat or be eaten, so I should start wielding the bloody sword of rejection at anything or anyone that even remotely steps on my turf?
Have you ever killed a proposal or a paper just because you could? All of these actions can be justified based on a lack of technical merit -- there is no such thing as a perfect proposal or paper -- but, if you are being honest, have you ever really, truly done it primarily in order to derail someone, because, underneath it all, you felt threatened and protected your turf? Even if you have never done so, how often have you wondered, at least in the back of your mind, whether perhaps you should do it?
Of course, this post begs for a poll:
Please be honest. I know enough people in science who are complete and utter selfish assholes that I will be deeply disappointed if all I get are hypocritical responses such as "I would never EVER dream of doing such an unethical thing!" Even good people dream of doing horrible things, but luckily most people don't act on their worst impulses.