Adventures of a Postdoc

November 18, 2007

Deja-vu

Filed under: research-related — Tags: , , — mxc305 @ 2:23 pm

Have you ever performed a literature search, found the perfect article, and printed it out, only to realize a few days later that you had already found that article, read it closely, and made detailed notes in the margins?

If your answer is no, go through that pile of papers you’ve read and I bet you’ll find a duplicate copy of an article or two.  If you’re like me, this happens on a regular basis.  While this may make you chuckle as you recall the last time this happened, it brings up a more serious question:

How important is the research we perform? 

This has been on my mind for quite some time now.  I came from a lab that was highly respected and published regularly in upper-tier journals.  Yet when I think about it, nothing we did will ever save the human race.  The papers may get cited, or they may help another lab come up with new ideas, but is it (and other similar research) worth the billions that are spent on research?  Can that money be better spent on getting people out of poverty or educating our youth?

There was an article in The Scientist, one of my favorite magazines with talented writers, a well-rounded collection of articles each month, and daily news articles online.  It was called “An Economic Gamble” and asks a similar question to the one posed above.

The problem is that most labs are so desperate for funding that they will write anything in their grant proposals/renewals in hopes of getting a high priority score.  While this may seem harmless, it often means saying they will do something clinically relevant (i.e. help the human race) when in fact they have no intention of doing so.  It seems like a vicious cycle of agreeing to perform research to answer a question, yet performing experiments that may not necessarily have anything to do with it.  In the meantime, that money is spent on buying the newest computers, supplementing salaries, and funding trips to tropical destinations (i.e. conferences).

I used to laugh at every paper that included a line or two about how their study was clinically relevent, but after re-reading my publications recently, I realized I did the same.  As a graduate student, I justified it by saying that I was merely following my PI’s wisdom.  In reality, I only cared about getting my PhD and getting out of there, and as long as it paid the bills, I was more than happy to oblige.

Fortunately, my goal is to teach at a liberal arts college where I can still perform research, but it won’t make or break someone receiving tenure.  My research also has a very clinical relevance (obesity, satiety, etc) that would actually fulfill the goals of many smaller grants and funding opportunities.  I don’t think I’m more noble because of this.  I feel there’s a broken system in which a lot of money is being given to people who don’t necessarily intend to or are able to fulfill the goals.  To me, that’s the same as Bush (or any president) using money to fight questionable wars when there are homeless vets who don’t eat enough on any given day.

I don’t have the answers, but I’m hoping that during my lifetime, I can witness a time when we all feel confident that government-sponsored research money is being spent as efficiently as possible.

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