Playing devil’s advocate to the internet: k3rn3d

This is a month and a half late and a few dollars short, but deal with it.

So in early October, there was this huge hubbub about this article called “Where’s the passion?” by Scott E. Kern in Cancer biology and therapy. He basically complained that scientists weren’t working hard enough. The internet exploded. Now, I don’t always notice these things, but this time people were saying hilarious things on twitter with the hash #k3rn3d, involving what they were doing (going on vacation, taking care of kids, eating and sleeping occasionally, etc.) that was preventing them from curing cancer. Eventually, I wanted to be a cool kid too, and went on a scavenger hunt to see for myself the inspiration for all this hilarity.

So, I found EXHIBIT A, same link as before, and read it. There is lots of whining and anecdotal “data collection” about the disappointing number of people who treat science like a J-O-B. He also mentions how much public money either from the government or through charities is given to these scientific enterprises, and how much it costs to keep these buildings or whatever running when people aren’t working. Additionally he talks a lot about “the good old days” when scientists seemed to live and breath their science, fighting day and night to get that result. I, honestly, did not totally disagree with him.

Then I started reading blogger’s responses, since the strong backlash on Twitter did not make quite as much sense to me as I had thought it would. I found EXHIBIT B by drugmonkey to have some good points: (1) in “the good old days” scientists were mainly WASPy men with wives at home taking care of the children and (2) Kern is probably bitter because he worked his ass of as a grad student/post-doc and made someone else famous and now needs his own minions to make him famous. Okay, fine, a valid attack on the personal motivations of this guy to write this article and why they are flawed makes a funny blog post. But… I’m gradually noticing that everybody seems to be overlooking the points that Kern got RIGHT.

So I look at more blogs and come across EXHIBIT C and EXHIBIT D by MicroWorld and Zuska respectively. These are basically more personal attacks, but now from the angle of “not being a mule” and bringing up the questions of academia vs. industry, which are not really what Kern actually wrote about. Anyway, most of the blog posts I read (even Dr. Isis, who is usually stellar at this game) were similar to this: very personal and very meandering, often funny and overly angry, sometimes it seemed just for the benefit of giving their readers a show, without bothering to think through their arguments.

In conclusion, I don’t think anyone did a very good job of getting their point across. Kern comes off as bitter and out of touch and many of the rebuttals come off childish and knee-jerk as if Kern evoked memories of bad past experiences that they needed an excuse to write about. I think the best arguments against Kern were the Tweets that originally got me interested in this wild goose chase. Work life balance is important, no one says it isn’t. Kern does seem to advocate an unhealthy level of work ethic from his fellow scientists, and attacking this is only too fair, but maybe what he is trying to say is subtler, and actually worth thinking about instead of just yelling at him from the cozy anonymity of the internet.

POINT 1 – Passion: is lacking. I’ve worked with several people who really couldn’t care less about what they’re doing. If you are blogging, tweeting, about this in your spare time, this does not apply to you, but they are out there. According to my own anecdotal experience, this lack of passion is most common in experimentally-oriented biological/biomedical sciences (as opposed to more mathy/physicsy things). Maybe it’s because we’re too close to the soul-sucking doctors and pharma companies, or maybe it’s just easy to forget why you went into science in the first place when your daily life consists of an endless cycle of PCRs and minipreps. But whoever these people are, they DO treat it like a job, Kern is not making this up. Now, yes, what we do is work, but it pays shit, so why don’t you go get an actual J-O-B that pays more? Where Kern makes his biggest mistake is in not differentiating these people from the passionate who albeit are extremely good out of necessity (family, etc) at keeping the labwork part of the passion inside working hours.

POINT 2 – Money: is being wasted. This is plain and simple true. I am convinced that we could make as much or maybe more progress in science with less money than we currently “need”. This is a dangerous thing to say, what with budget cuts and whatever looming over the US and UK, I know, but I like to live dangerously. I’m not talking about firing people (though…) or cutting high-risk projects, I’m just highlighting extraneous administrative costs that border on embezzlement and the dumb rules funding bodies have about how labs have to spend their money. (NOTE: I am a grad student, so I don’t actually know what I’m talking about, but this is my feeble, naive opinion.) The problem is figuring out where to cut off the fat without hurting the meat, and I think right now we’re letting the fat grow out of control due to our fear of loosing that one crucial piece of priceless flesh. But this is really much more a question for the economics of funding bodies and business/department/lab management than it is for teh science, and it is certainly not the job of scientists to work 24/7 to make up for this management failure.

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4 Responses to Playing devil’s advocate to the internet: k3rn3d

  1. Lab Rat says:

    Very interesting post, and some good points made. However I do take a bit of issue with this:

    “But whoever these people are, they DO treat it like a job, Kern is not making this up. Now, yes, what we do is work, but it pays shit, so why don’t you go get an actual J-O-B that pays more?”

    First of all, I’m not entirely sure about what you want people to treat their work *as*, if not a job? I certainly wouldnt consider my science to be, say, a hobby. I’ve done several science projects, and on each one of them I was very enthusiastic about the work, loved doing it, but was still very much determined to treat it as a job. It was work I was getting paid for, and I’m not sure what other way there was to see it. Job and Enthusiasm are not mutually exclusive.

    As for the “why don’t you just get a job” arguement I start to feel angry whenever I hear that. Have you *tried* getting a job in this climate? It’s not actually as easy as that simple sentance makes it sound. I’m not saying that a regular salary for three years is the only reason I’m applying for a PhD, I am genuinely interested in the work, but it certainly was a factor.

    For me “treating science as a job” means going in, putting in the hours, enjoying it (mostly!) and then going home and having the rest of my life. Some weekends I come in. Most weekends I do not. I need the evenings to eat, do housework, and remind my fiance that I still exist.

    I still love it. I’m still passionate about it. But it’s a job.

  2. Thanks for the relevant point! Though it plays a little into the “every argument just devolves into semantics” game of my September 5th post. I think, as you said, it’s important to treat science as a “job” in the sense of eating and sleeping and having a life (which is where I think we agree with each other and disagree with Kern). But I think it’s equally as useful to not treat science as a “job” in the sense of clocking in and clocking out, pretending like the hours spent on facebook while waiting for cells to grow count as hours spent working (which I think is where I agree with Kern and may or may not agree with you).

    But yeah, I mean, you’re right. It IS a job. Money is nice. The economy is rough.

  3. Lab Rat says:

    Ah, I think I see what you mean now about ‘job’. Because for me, the people who clock-in, spend so many hours on facebook, shake a few tubes around then go home are the people who are NOT treating it like a job. They are treating it like a part-time hobby. And in my old lab they were the people who were most likely to be in on the weekends as well, on account of doing no work during the week.

    I would never moonlight during a job, so I try to stop writing blog-posts in the lab when I should be doing other things. Likewise I would never use facebook while working in a job, so I try to see science as my ‘job’ precisely to *stop* myself wasting time during the hours I’m “at work”.

    But yes, it may just be a semantic point and a different view of work ethic at this point! I do agree that several people will waste time in the lab, but I think the answer is to treat science *more* like a job (better wages, more regular reports, maybe more accountability as to what you spend all your internet time doing and did I mention the better wages?) than less like one.

    Also – at the risk of turning this into an essay comment, quite a few people who have the “science can be done outside normal hours” ethic tend to waste time *because* of that. When I know I have a weekend in the lab I get a bit “well I can put that off because I’ve got all Saturday!” whereas if I know I’m away that weekend I put more effort in because I *have* to get it done during the 9 hours a day that I’m working.

  4. I agree with you. I see lack of passion and waste of money in US academia all the time, every day. Especially on postdocs and PhD students level.

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