I usually feel happier reviewing a grant application from the U.S. National Science Foundation than one sent by the Science and Engineering Council here in Britain, where I am much more likely to know the applicant personally," a biochemist told me recently. A staunch supporter of peer review, he was nevertheless uncomfortably aware of the distortions, unfairness and even abuses that can flaw this time-honored principle of scholarly intercourse. He even suggested that the contemporary problem of scarce finance might lead referees in a relatively close community to moderate their attack. Rather than sharpening any critical shafts, they are likely to go easy in light of the possible calamitous implications for an individual or a research team when a major funding proposal is rejected.

Perhaps this approaches timorous irresponsibility. Yet my companion's general argument has undoubted merit. The opinions we express in public often differ from those vouchsafed under the...

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