Who stole the curiosity?
I am just finishing the second of a duo of fantastic books about science and scientists. The first one, Freakonomics by Steven Levitt, is about a plethora of issues relating to “down to the ground” economics, ie. about the most basic incentives that drive people’s decisions to satisfy their needs one way or another. The second, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, is a collection of autobiographical anecdotes by Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate in physics, lesser known for his immense breadth of extracurricular interests and an uncanny inclination to mischief. The two books have rather little in common, but one theme links them: scientific curiosity of brilliant researchers. Both Levitt and Feynman just radiate curiosity. They have this amazing ability to find questions in everyday situations that nobody has asked before, to follow them through, and to solve mysteries that no one even knew were there. I kind of envy them. I wish I had more time for actually thinking, for data interpretation, for reading and such. Instead, I spend so much time at the lab bench that at the end of the day I am totally exhausted and even thinking of science gives me gag reflex. Everything is rushed. You have to be thinking about the next grant deadline, the next paper. Where did the curiosity go? Who stole it from me?
There are I think a few causes. Number one is an immense labor-intensiveness of biomedical research. Unfortunately, we are far from fully automating the routine laboratory techniques, and good technicians are a luxury that only the richest labs can afford. In effect, great young minds in their most intellectually productive years spend most of their time doing mundane, mind-numbing tasks such as changing the wash on a Western blot, or doing minipreps of plasmids. Sure, you can try to think or read in between the washes or while your samples are spinning down, but then you will likely mess up your experiment and you have to start over.
Related to that is another cause – the extreme bottom-heaviness of the hierarchical pyramid. The overwhelming majority of researchers in biomed are required to do what their superiors “suggest” they should do, rather than following their own curiosity and exploring on their own. Only one in 10 graduate students in the US gets an independent position as a professor at a research university. That means again that most of these people will never have the freedom to go where they really feel their ideas are guiding them.
The third cause is the funding mechanisms for biomedical research. I am not very familiar with other countries, but the main funding agency in the US, the National Institutes of Health, doesn’t really want to fund innovative research guided by curiosity. Their agenda is to help fight diseases, not to sponsor some bright young wackaloons who think that the world is a fascinating place and want to discover how stuff works. And so there is a tendency in the NIH to select grant applications that are directly related to some sort of a disease, even if they are clearly not particularly innovative and will result in the humanity learning very few new things. The funny thing is that the grants are peer-reviewed and it is other scientists who rate grants based on these utility criteria, even if they realize that best science results from people being allowed to do exciting rather than utilitarian work. Grant mechanisms supposed to promote innovative, high-risk science, such as R21, are a total joke and they are graded according to the exact same criteria as R01s, ie. utilitarian value and feasibility first, then innovation and curiosity. In consequence, even the people at the top of the pyramid have their hands tied by their peers who prefer to promote incremental, low impact science.
Is the system broken? I don’t know. Just because I get frustrated at times with all the grind at the lab bench and with not getting to do what I want scientifically, doesn’t mean that the system is unfair or not optimally designed. Still, I feel a little robbed of my curiosity and my enthusiasm, and when I read about Levitt and Feynman, I can’t help wondering if there is a way to redesign the system so that people like myself could treat science as a never-ending adventure the same way they do.
Entry filed under: Biomedical research, Conduct of science, Literature, Philosophy of science. Tags: Biomedical research, hardships of lab work, NIH, Richard Feynman, science funding, scientific curiosity, Stephen Levitt.