Opening Words from Sun. July 14 by Dave Gutekunst

Good morning! July’s theme is “Bringing out the Best”, and oddly, that made me think of government bureaucracy. 

For the last several years, I haven’t seen much connection between goodness and government or politics. Quite the opposite: I feel shocked daily at the monstrous inhumanity perpetrated by our government.

This affects my psyche, and maybe yours, too. If you live near Tower Grove, you may sometimes hear muffled, profane shrieking around 6:00AM. That’s me, screaming into the void as I read the news each morning. (I’m exaggerating, but just barely…) It’s worst for my poor dog, who is developing some strange Pavlovian conditioning: she’s learned that when I am swearing at my laptop, breakfast is imminent. 

So, I’m frustrated about our government. The challenge is focusing on productive action and avoiding cynicism and disillusionment.

I’m lucky that a small part of my work as a professor at SLU lets me see the good that government still does. For the last few years, I’ve been going to Washington twice a year to serve as a grant reviewer for federal research funding through the Veterans Administration (VA).

I thought it might be heartening to hear about the process by which government agencies (VA, NIH, NSF, etc.) decide who gets federal research dollars. I contend that it brings out our best.

To be clear, this doesn’t counterbalance the horrible things being done in our names. 

  • People are still in cages. 
  • Systemic racism still pervades law enforcement and the legal system.  
  • Survivors of sexual abuse still observe that if their assailants are rich and powerful enough, justice will be slow, if it ever comes at all.

But this is a tiny piece of good news. It’s a reminder that governments are people (my friends), and that it is possible to build institutions based on ethical values.

Here goes: the process begins when research teams submit their applications. Each application represents several months of work by teams of researchers, built on decades of scholarship. Based on the topic, each application is assigned to a review section and 3-5 specific experts. My review section focuses on rehabilitation for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, osteoarthritis, amputation, etc. 

As the “experts”, we pore over the applications, focusing on scientific rigor, the importance of the problem they’re trying to address, and the likelihood that the research will improve treatment outcomes or lead to new technologies. 

Then, in February and August, we gather in nondescript conference rooms in DC and argue it out. We take it seriously. The end result is a set of detailed critical reviews that inform funding decisions and are also returned to the researchers. Only 10-20% of grants are funded, so the feedback helps researchers decide whether to resubmit or move on to another idea. 

The whole process is built on principles of transparency, accountability, and competition, with strict guidelines to limit bias and conflicts of interest. Every session begins with a VA administrator reiterating the mission of the review process: that we are contributing to the distribution of the people’s money, and that we are gathered to act on behalf of our fellow citizens to decide how to use some of our collective wealth. It’s a reminder that we are all in this together. 

I’ve heard this half a dozen times, and it still gets to me. It provides a ray of hope in this dark historical moment. As I hear it, I recognize that I will probably go back to cursing at the news, but it’s a moment of hope, and that’s valuable. 

If we get through our current situation with our democracy intact, we will need to rebuild many of our institutions, and to reestablish the ethical foundations on which they’re based. 

So if you also find yourself screaming at your laptop, try to remember that in tiny puddles deep within “The Swamp”, there are dedicated, talented people working to bring out the best.

Thank you.

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.