Credit notice: every little rejection helps

October 3, 2013

Now you just fought one hell of a fight
And I know you hate me, and you got the right
To kill me now, and I wouldn’t blame you if you do.
But ya ought to thank me, before I die,
For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye
Cause I’m the son-of-a-bitch that named you Sue.

With these words, Johnny Cash’s character justified giving his son a somewhat unusual name because it made him the man he was. By the same token, I would like to claim some credit for making Russell Foster one of the most imaginative and influential biologists of his generation. In “Eternal sunshine of the scientific mind” (26 September), he outlined the lack of encouragement he had received during his career, which only made him more determined to succeed.

As Friedrich Nietzsche (and Kelly Clarkson) said: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Since I was one of the people who refereed Foster’s unfunded grant applications when he returned to the UK, I must surely, along with his careers adviser, have contributed indirectly to his description of a novel photoreceptor type in the vertebrate retina, arguably the biggest advance in visual science in the past 50 years.

If only my dad had called me Alison…

Name and address supplied

 

As a researcher in the US at the same time as Russell Foster, I found his statement that those of us who pursued research in the country in the late 1980s “were profoundly changed by the experience” to ring very true.

However, his response to a first grant rejection was not adopted by all. Many applicants, rather than approaching alternative funders, engaged with reviewers’ criticisms and were encouraged to resubmit their proposals. It was therefore possible for newcomers and established academics to stake their claims to exciting new areas of research, knowing that after one or two iterations they could be fairly confident of funding.

American agencies have recently reduced the number of resubmissions allowed, but I believe it was their enlightened position in the 1980s, which contrasts so strongly with the UK research councils’ “no resubmission” policy today, that enabled US scientific research to be so vibrant at that time.

Peter J. Cragg
University of Brighton

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