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THE BLACK HOLE

What makes a great scientific advisory committee?

These committees review and provide input into scientific endeavors, but perhaps the merit of a project should also be assessed by how difficult it is to assemble this panel of experts.

By JONATHAN THON | MAR 09 2018

This question has been on my mind a lot recently, having just stepped out of a very successful program grant review for a large German consortium, and stepped into a renovation of our scientific advisory board at Platelet BioGenesis for the purposes for exploring a new (very large) market opportunity. Whether assembling a PhD committee, choosing reviewers for a new manuscript submission, or ranking abstracts for an upcoming scientific conference, the challenge is surprisingly difficult. “Why is recruiting a great scientific advisory committee difficult?” is perhaps the most interesting question of all.

For starters, it’s important that scientific advisory committee candidates represent the foremost experts in their field. Their opinions carry weight, but that weight legitimately derives from decades of experience at the very highest levels of their scientific area of research. It is very rare that a new research question is being asked for the very first time. More commonly an old question is being asked anew in a different scientific setting (maybe we know more, or we have better tools), and there are often very good reasons why it hasn’t been answered yet. An expert provides this historical context, and their career accomplishments suggest success in resolving the challenges that will ultimately present themselves during the course of this work. And yet, you still shouldn’t simply ask any expert to join…

It is equally important that a great scientific advisory committee be varied. If the question spans platelets, drug delivery and cancer, a scientific advisory committee should include experts in each. This ensures potential gaps in the research program are appropriately covered. When the key topic areas are filled, additional advisers (where appropriate) should be brought in to support the in-between spaces (e.g. platelets and cancer, platelets and drug delivery, drug delivery and cancer). These are great opportunities to include junior scientists in the process and support career development without putting the advisory committee in jeopardy. Sometimes a fresh perspective can be invaluable.

Once candidates have been identified, it is critical that they be screened. Criticism is important for success, but only if it is constructive. While the point of a scientific advisory committee is to point out flaws or challenges in a project, it is also equally important that they help identify opportunities and provide insight into how to resolve the inevitable problems that will arise. I cannot overstate the importance of this. Scientific advisory committees must offer solutions to be of value, and for advisers to create value they need to believe in the project or team. Most great scientific projects are exercises in catching a tiger by the tail: That the opportunity is huge is a good start, but if you’re not very careful, you could end up worse than if you had left well enough alone. Besides being experienced “tiger tamers” your scientific advisory committee needs to fundamentally believe that you have a better chance of success than most. An adviser that doesn’t, will only highlight the problems without offering anything in their place. Like a strong scientific advisory board should tell you a lot about your promise, a weak board should also tell you something about your chances.

This raises an interesting observation. We assemble scientific advisory boards to review and provide input into scientific endeavors, but perhaps the difficulty in assembling a scientific advisory board of experts should carry equal weight in assessing the merit of a program. Dave wrote a very interesting article last week on improving the way we communicate (and perform!) scientific research. Perhaps we should begin disclosing the committee selection process as part of this meta-data? Research Gate already publishes ‘RG Scores,’ and we have taken to linking our scientific advisory committee profiles to these where they are available for the purposes of further transparency. It is not important that ‘RG Scores’ represent the metric used, and I wholly appreciate that this might be a flawed metric, like any other – what is important is that there be a metric by which we can begin quantitatively gauging caliber of expertise. While we might not be very good at distinguishing between the top three to 20 percent of scientists, we should recognize them from the rest.

Finally, the individual committee members need to harmonize together. The candidates being assembled often have very strong personalities that need to be accounted for. Some of these work very well together, while others will blow themselves apart. It is important to be conscientious of this and share the list of potential expert candidates with the candidates themselves. Part of the experience senior scientists will have is a rich and often first-hand perspective in what the other leaders of their field are like. Draw on this experience. It is also not just the advisory committee that needs to vibe with one another – everyone needs to get along with you. When possible, begin interacting with your potential scientific advisory committee candidates early so that you have this experience to draw on well before putting together your team.

As with all of my articles, these are my thoughts borne out of my own personal experiences. I’m very interested in yours.

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the CEO and chief scientific officer of Platelet BioGenesis, and a faculty member in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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