I finished a stint on a National Science Foundation grant review panel this afternoon — my eighth, I think, and the second in which I was a “virtual panelist,” joining by videoconference a panel physically held in Washington, D.C. Thinking of the pros and cons of being a virtual panelist brings up the broader questions of how, or whether, we get rewarded for various activities, and how these rewards are changing due to new technologies, a subject of lots of discussion these days.
One does get paid for being an NSF panelist. It’s a nice, tangible signal of appreciation, but it’s not a large amount; given the considerable time it takes to review a proposal, it’s doubtful that any of us are even making minimum wage. The more important rewards are intangible: becoming more familiar with the workings of the NSF, being exposed to carefully constructed proposals pushing new scientific directions, and interacting with a panel full of interesting and intelligent colleagues. That last part, the interactions, is barely present when one is a virtual panelist — conversations over coffee or dinner are gone, and informal scientific chats of any type are hard. Virtual panelists of course save money. But if they make people less willing to serve by removing a benefit of being on a panel, will the savings be worth it?
(I suppose a benefit of being a virtual panelist is bicycling at 4:30am through fog and mist along empty streets, watching raccoons by the Willamette River. This doesn’t outweigh the misery of getting up in time to attend a 8am *Eastern Time* videoconference, though.)
Thinking about this reminded of a new system being launched that will allow comments on journal articles, collected and curated centrally through the giant PubMed database, which covers nearly every article even somewhat related to biology. See (http://andrewgelman.com/2013/10/23/pubmed-commons-system-commenting-articles-pubmed/.) In principle this is a good thing — commentary can improve the comprehensibility of articles, and can point out errors. In practice, I can’t imagine it working. Nature and other journals already allow comments, and the comment space is almost always completely empty. Why? Why don’t I comment more? (1) I’m very critical of lots of articles, but don’t want to build a reputation as that jerk who always points out that papers are flawed, even when they really are. Plus, it would be professionally suicidal. (2) It takes a lot of work to write a meaningful critique of a paper (or a proposal) — if it is to be valuable, it needs to be far more than a thumbs up or down. What’s the motivation for spending precious time on this?
I thought of this again when running across this essay from David Byrne, pointing out that the expectation of free content will make it impossible for musicians to support themselves as musicians:
…”that model [of streaming music services, like Spotify] doesn’t seem sustainable if it becomes the dominant form of consumption. Musicians might, for now, challenge the major labels and get a fairer deal than 15% of a pittance, but it seems to me that the whole model is unsustainable as a means of supporting creative work of any kind. Not just music. The inevitable result would seem to be that the internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left. Writers, for example, can’t rely on making money from live performances – what are they supposed to do? Write ad copy?” (Found via Philip Ball’s blog: http://philipball.blogspot.com/2013/10/death-of-artist.html)
Perhaps in the future everyone will produce everything without thinking of the rewards than ensue, or just expecting that “exposure” is, for some reason, its own reward.
And yes, I realize that I’m writing this post for no good reason. Having been up since 3:30am, I am too tired to sort through the implications of this. To add another layer of senselessness, here’s David Byrne, with one of my favorite Talking Heads songs: