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.
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.