More is better? Received widsom in the tribe of science.

Because it's turning out to be that kind of semester, I'm late to the party in responding to this essay (PDF) by Scott E. Kern bemoaning the fact that more cancer researchers at Johns Hopkins aren't passionate enough to be visible in the lab on a Sunday afternoon. But I'm sure as shooting going to respond.

First, make sure you read the thoughtful responses from Derek Lowe, Rebecca Monatgue, and Chemjobber.

Kern's piece describes a survey he's been conducting (apparently over the course of 25 years) in which he seemingly counts the other people in evidence in his cancer center on Saturdays and Sundays, and interviews them with "open-ended, gentle questions, such as 'Why are YOU here? Nobody else is here!'" He also deigns to talk to the folks found working at the center 9 to 5 on weekdays to record "their insights about early morning, evening and weekend research." Disappointingly, Kern doesn't share even preliminary results from his survey. However, he does share plenty of disdain for the trainees and PIs who are not bustling through the center on weekends waiting for their important research to be interrupted by a guy with a clipboard conducting a survey.

Kern diagnoses the absence of all the researchers who might have been doing research as an indication of their lack of passion for scientific research. He tracks the amount of money (in terms of facilities and overhead, salaries and benefits) that is being thrown away in this horrific weekend under-utilization of resources. He suggests that the researchers who have escaped the lab on a weekend are falling down on their moral duty to cure cancer as soon as humanly possible.


The unsupported assumptions in Kern's piece are numerous (and far from novel). Do we know that having each research scientist devote more hours in the lab increases the rate of scientific returns? Or might there plausibly be a point of diminishing returns, where additional lab-hours produce no appreciable return? Where's the economic calculation to consider the potential damage to the scientists from putting in 80 hours a week (to their health, their personal relationships, their experience of a life outside of work, maybe even their enthusiasm for science)? After all, lots of resources are invested in educating and training researchers -- enough so that one wouldn't want to break them on the basis of an (unsupported) hypothesis offered in the pages of Cancer Biology & Therapy.

And while Kern is doing economic calculations, he might want to consider the impact on facilities of research activity proceeding full-tilt, 24/7. Without some downtime, equipment and facilities might wear out faster than they would otherwise.

Nowhere here does Kern consider the option of hiring more researchers to work 40 hour weeks, instead of shaming the existing research workforce into spending 60, 80, 100 hours a week in the lab.

They might still end up bringing work home (if they ever get a chance to go home).

Kern might dismiss this suggestion on purely economic grounds -- organizations are more likely to want to pay for fewer employees (with benefits) who can work more hours than to pay to have the same number of hours of work done my more employees. He might also dismiss it on the basis that the people who really have the passion needed to do the research to cure cancer will not prioritize anything else in their lives above doing that research and finding that cure.

If that is so, it's not clear how the problem is solved by browbeating researchers without this passion into working more hours because they owe it to cancer patients. Indeed, Kern might consider, in light of the relative dearth of researchers with such passion (as he defines it), the necessity of making use of the research talents and efforts of people who don't want to spend 60 hours a week in the lab. Kern's piece suggests he'd have a preference for keeping such people out of the research ranks, but by his own account there would hardly be enough researchers left in that case to keep research moving forward.

Might not these conditions prompt us to reconsider whether the received wisdom of scientific mentors is always so wise? Wouldn't this be a reasonable place to reevaluate the strategy for accomplishing the grand scientific goal?

And Kern does not even consider a pertinent competing hypothesis, that people often have important insights into how to move research forward in the moments when they step back and allow their minds to wander. Perhaps less time away from one's project means fewer of these insights.

The part of Kern's piece that I find most worrisome is the cudgel he wields near the end:

During the survey period, off-site laypersons offer comments on my observations. “Don’t the people with families have a right to a career in cancer research also?” I choose not to answer. How would I? Do the patients have a duty to provide this “right”, perhaps by entering suspended animation? Should I note that examining other measures of passion, such as breadth of reading and fund of knowledge, may raise the same concern and that “time” is likely only a surrogate measure? Should I note that productive scientists with adorable family lives may have “earned” their positions rather than acquiring them as a “right”? Which of the other professions can adopt a country-club mentality, restricting their activities largely to a 35–40 hour week? Don’t people with families have a right to be police? Lawyers? Astronauts? Entrepreneurs?

How dare researchers go home to their families until they have cured cancer?

Indeed, Kern's framing here warrants an examination of just what cancer patients can demand from researchers (or any other members of society), and on what basis. But that is a topic so meaty that it will require it's own post.

Besides which, I have a pile of work I brought home that I have to start plowing through.

12 responses so far

  • razib says:

    more posts like this! if kern & co. get their way fewer and fewer scientists will work more and more hours since no one will go into science.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Razib-- the sad thing is that many fields of science are overproducing PhDs at a rate that we're in no danger of running out. As such, supervisors, and assessment like kernel, have the ability to make inhuman demands... for each person they drive out, there are several waiting to take their place. Alas, I seriously doubt we'd be driving the right people out, and that those that survive will work better by being overdriven.

    One may as well ask why Kernel is wasting so much time whinging instead of doing something useful for society. Is the world in such good shape that it can afford for him to waste time writing this crap? Hmmm...

  • DrugMonkey says:

    So obviously Kern must be using a lot of methamphetamine, it really is a small price to pay since, you know, people are dying of cancer and all...

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bora Zivkovic, GrrlScientist, Janet D. Stemwedel, Will Grant, No way! and others. No way! said: RT @willozap: RT @BoraZ: More is better? Received widsom in the tribe of science. [...]

  • Transient Reporter says:

    Perhaps grad students are less passionate about science because bean-counters like Kern suck the passion right out of them. Has he considered that?

  • Janne says:

    By the same line of reasoning, how dare people getting paid for their work? That salary is money that could go into the research instead, and people Owe It To Cancer to keep working even without a salary. Besides, it's not like you need a place to stay anyway if you're going to live in the lab 24/7.

    Seriously, if he's put off by this he should put 80 hours/week and mandatory weekends in the employment contract for his lab - you know, the agreement between the worker and the lab about what to do and when to do it. When it's completely clear and open he'll get the people who accept those conditions and will be rid of those that don't. Somehow I suspect he won't have all that many highly qualified takers.

  • Excellent post on this fucken nutte. However, I continue to disagree with your characterization of science as a "tribe". It is not a "tribe"; it is a profession. Viewing it as a tribe feeds into exactly the kind of sick-fuck delusional attitudes of assholes like Kern.

  • Kierra says:

    "Without some downtime, equipment and facilities might wear out faster than they would otherwise."

    More importantly, if the equipment and facilities don't have downtime, then there's no time to do required maintenance and repairs.

    I'd also wonder about whether he is seeing the same people in the off-hours all the time or whether different researchers stayed late at different times depending on when their particular experiments went long or required weekend upkeep. It's also possible that at least some of those people are compensating by not coming in during normal hours. I knew one researcher who's equipment (atomic force microscopy) functioned better when the building was quiet (hey look! another reason for downtime), so she worked noon to 8 pm most days.

  • Scott Kern's comments about the dedication of biomedical researchers probably has a small kernel of truth, but to a large extent he over extrapolates from the absence of researchers in facilities on weekends and evening to a lack of passion for their work. Scientists are clearly amongst the most dedicated and passionate of professionals. However, it is difficult to communicate this to others that do not share a similar depth of understanding about their particular field of enquiry.

    To enter into the field of biomedical research, one has to be curiosity-driven and profoundly affect by the plight of the diseased. The training to become a researcher is long, arduous and expensive, with no guarantees of stable employment or high pay. Clearly, money is not the prime motivation for pursuit of a scientific career. I suspect that given a choice between a huge cut in pay or loss of the ability to pursue their research interests, most of the scientists that I know would make the financial sacrifice. If money was the key motivator, they would have become doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants or a myriad of other professionals that earn higher salaries with less education.

    Once finally established as biomedical researchers, many academics have to juggle their research, teaching, administrative and possibly clinical activities and responsibilities. It is a constant struggle to get financial support through grants to conduct one's research with the limited resources available and the high competition from equally dedicated scientists.

    The absence of trainees and established scientists during weekends and evenings in institutions does not mean that they are not still working. A few decades ago, it was necessary to come to work to read the literature, plan experiments and analyze the results. However, with the advent of personal computers and the Internet, this is no longer required. If anything, I suspect that biomedical researchers today are working even harder and more effectively than their colleagues a generation ago. The explosion of biomedical knowledge over the last few decades clearly demonstrates this.

  • Chemjobber says:

    Thanks for the link and the kind comment -- it's appreciated!

  • Art says:

    At a major medical center there was a room that had the label "Terminal work room". We figured it was a place where people could get on the main billing system by way of a set of terminals. Little did we know that they were working out the details of the rougher end of the return on time invested scale.

  • [...] science (for those who may not remember dear St. Kern, here are a few of the many great pieces on that [...]