There is a fine line between honesty and compassion. I have a very difficult time finding balance between these values. I tend to personally value honesty a bit more and thus tend to draw the line closer to pure unadulterated honesty than I think most people like.
I have had a guest scientist in my laboratory for the last few years. Academic research is an odd thing. This physician scientist, who trained with a Nobel laureate, does not yet have lab space of his own. Most of the time he works as a clinical doctor seeing patients and in his free time (for free) he works in my lab. Unfortunately, his departmental chair will not free up his clinical schedule or provide him laboratory space until he has grant funding. He cannot get grant funding unless he has solid preliminary data. He cannot generate preliminary data without a laboratory; thus, he has been working in my laboratory, on a project related to my laboratory goals, as he can, in his free time. Now, finally, after two or three years of this, he finally has almost enough data to submit an application to the NIH (National Institutes of Health). For the last 4 years or so I have been on one of the peer review committees that reviews NIH grants. Given budget constraints, at best, most Institutes are funding 10 to 20% of the received applications. If you are not in the top 10% it’s unlikely that your research will be funded. Thus, when my guest scientist gave me his draft proposal to review, I felt that it would be in his best interest to provide commentary as if it had gone to my study section (peer review committee) . I emailed my comments & suggestions off last week and have heard a big fat nothing. My guest has also not been seen in the laboratory. I really hope that I have not made him hate me. The problem with scientists (and I am one so I can say this) is that our research is often like our children & if you criticize a project/grant/idea it is as if you have told someone that their child is stupid, mean and ugly. No one wants to hear this and yet is it not better to get this feedback in 48 hours rather than sending it off to an anonymous committee and having to wait 4 to 6 months to get the same information? Where should the line be drawn?
I’m pondering this today as another colleague emailed me to see whether I could take a look at her grant application before she sends it in. She is a new investigator who has not yet won a grant to support her research. She is at a different institution than my guest scientist and does in fact have some laboratory space in which to create preliminary data. I emailed her back that I would be happy to review her grant as if it were sent to my study section. However, I told her the story above & warned that I did not want it to impact our friendship if my commentary wasn’t glowing (i.e. please do not ask me to review your grant if you do not want my honest opinion. If you just want someone to tell you that your masterpiece is perfect please please please ask someone else). I’m not sure what she will decide.
I really don’t know the best way to handle these situations. In some ways I feel on the receiving end of situations I have put my fine husband in…"Honey, does this dress make me look fat? matronly?" Is there any right answer to this question when indeed the dress does make you look fat?