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Wears the passion? Yes it does rather…

17 July 2011 One Comment
Leukemia cells.

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Quite some months ago an article in Cancer Therapy and Biology by Scott Kern of Johns Hopkins kicked up an almighty online stink. The article entitled “Where’s the passion” bemoaned the lack of hard core dedication amongst the younger researchers that the author saw around him…starting with:

It is Sunday afternoon on a sunny, spring day.

I’m walking the halls—all of them—in a modern $59 million building dedicated to cancer research. A half hour ago, I completed a stroll through another, identical building. You see, I’m doing a survey. And the two buildings are largely empty.

The point being that if they really cared, those young researchers would be there day in-day out working their hearts out to get to the key finding. At one level this is risible, expecting everyone to work 24×7 is not a good or efficient way to get results. Furthermore you have to wonder why these younger researchers have “lost their passion”. Why doesn’t the environment create that naturally, what messages are the tenured staff sending through their actions. But I’d be being dishonest if there wasn’t a twinge of sympathy for me as well. Anyone who’s run a group has had that thought that the back of their mind; “if only they’d work harder/smarter/longer we’d be that much further ahead…”.

But all of that has been covered by others. What jumped out of the piece for me at the time were some other passages, ones that really got me angry.

When the mothers of the Mothers March collected dimes, they KNEW that teams, at that minute, were performing difficult, even dangerous, research in the supported labs. Modern cancer advocates walk for a cure down the city streets on Saturday mornings across the land. They can comfortably know that, uh…let’s see here…, some of their donations might receive similar passion. Anyway, the effort should be up to full force by 10 a.m. or so the following Monday.

[…]

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?

Now these are all worthy statements. We’d all like to see faster development of cures and I’ve no doubt that the people out there pounding the streets are driven to do all they can to see those cures advance. But is the real problem here whether the postdocs are here on a Sunday afternoon or are there things we could do to advance this? Maybe there are other parts of the research enterprise that could be made more efficient…like I don’t know making the results of research widely available and ensuring that others are in the best position possible to build on their results?

It would be easy to pick on Kern’s record on publishing open access papers. Has he made all the efforts that would enable patients and doctors to make the best decisions they can on the basis of his research? His lab generates cell lines that can support further research. Are those freely available for others to use and build on? But to pick on Kern personally is to completely miss the point.

No, the problem is that this is systemic. Researchers across the board seem to have no interest whatsoever in looking closely at how we might deliver outcomes faster. No-one is prepared to think about how the system could be improved so as to deliver more because everyone is too focussed on climbing up the greasy pole; writing the next big paper and landing the next big grant. What is worse is that it is precisely in those areas where there is most public effort to raise money, where there is a desperate need, that attitudes towards making research outputs available are at their worse.

What made me absolutely incandescent about this piece was a small piece of data that some of use have known about for a while but has only just been published. Heather Piwowar, who has done a lot of work on how and where people share, took a close look at the sharing of microarray data. What kind of things are correlated with data sharing. The paper bears close reading (Full disclosure: I was the academic editor for PLoS ONE on this paper) but one thing has stood out from me as shocking since the first time I heard Heather discuss it: microarray data linked to studies of cancer is systematically less shared.

This is not an isolated case. Across the board there are serious questions to be asked about why it seems so difficult to get the data from studies that relate to cancer. I don’t want to speculate on the reasons because whatever they are, they are unnacceptable. I know I’ve recommended this video of Josh Sommer speaking many times before, but watch it again. Then read Heather’s paper. And then decide what you think we need to do about it. Because this can not go on.

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  • It’s what I say, with a false air of facetiousness (because I’m serious), when facing a demand to explain what I do at gunpoint: we’re speeding up science — that’s our job. Or perhaps we’re just fighting its natural tendency to move slowly — two-forward-one-back-style.

    As for working the weekends (when not required to by an experiment or something), presenteeism is pernicious nonsense and to ladle pseudo-guilt distilled from this imperfect world onto the shoulders of postdocs is execrable (“Little X hugs her favourite teddy as life slips from her fragile frame, meanwhile you drink beer and play pool”? — sick). My brain, for one, doesn’t stop working outside the lab/office; in fact when I let me hands rest, my brain works better. Perhaps the original poster should sleep on that.