Jonah Lehrer at the Frontal Cortex asks an interesting question: Why is science so much work?
But I’m curious why science takes so long. I know this is an incredibly naive question, but why do post-docs have to work so hard? What is it about the scientific process that forces the average researcher to come in on Saturday (and sometimes Sunday)?
My own limited experience tells me that one of the main reasons science remains so labor-intensive is failure. Perhaps I was simply inept, but an astonishing amount of my time in the lab was spent repeating failed experiments, or repeating successful experiments that failed on the second try. After awhile, I became obsessed with knowing why certain PCR’s or Western’s or whatever didn’t work, but it was all to no avail. Even when everything was fresh and sterile, I would still find myself staring at a blank gel after 10 hours of hard work.
Does the cheap labor of post-docs (and the even cheaper labor of lab technicians) stifle the drive to reduce experimental failure? Or is experimental failure just a necessary inefficiency, a side-effect of doing science? If post-docs were paid more, would their be more interest in increasing scientific productivity?
The short answer is, it’s the nature of the business. The explanation is below the fold.
The key thing to remember here is that research, despite what you might think from the name, is the process of doing something new, something that’s never been done before. You’re measuring a new quantity, synthesizing a new molecule, blotting a new Westerner (help me out here…), boldly going where no human has gone before.
Not only do you not know what the result will be, you don’t even know if what you’re doing can work. There might be some effect you haven’t considered– either a fundamental principle, or a perverse technical quirk (“Porcupines are allergic to raisins.”)– that means your chosen method can’t possibly succeed. You won’t know until you try it. And in general, if these things were easy to do, somebody else would’ve done them already. At which point, it wouldn’t be worth doing that experiment at all, unless it was a step toward something else that nobody has done before.
Science is Hard, to paraphrase Barbie, and failure is an unavoidable part of the business. Most of what you try won’t work, but the only way to learn what does work is to try stuff and see.
A colleague at Williams once said something about introducing undergraduates to research that I have since stolen, and shamelessly repeat all the time: the hardest part about bringing a new student into a research setting is getting them to realize that it isn’t a three-hour lab class. New research students will generally keep at something for about the same length of time it would take an in-class activity to work, and then come say “This isn’t working.” At which point, you have to explain that not only do you not know if it should’ve worked by now, you don’t know if it will ever work, and they need to keep plugging away for several days at least.
Most scientists would kill to have the success rate of a lousy hitter in baseball– if I got one experiment in five to work on the first attempt, I’d have a publication list a mile long.