Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ambition and the Scientist

Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm wrong for not thinking big enough. For not having enough ambition.

But maybe it isn't. Maybe the goal of doing research is to get a paper in Nature. Maybe Impact Factor is the most important thing.

I mean, if you aren't doing work that's worthy of publication, perhaps you are a dead weight. If you aren't getting into the literature you aren't getting any recognition and you won't be able to compete for grants that will fund the next round of research. Only: it isn't as if we're not publishing. We're just not publishing in Nature or Science, the biggest journals there are.
What am I talking about?
Oh, sorry.
We've had this one project going on in the lab for several years now, with nothing much to show for it. It was a big collaboration, and our industrial partner was supposed to do all the sequencing work while the two labs gathered samples and interpreted results. Only the sequencing never came through (in spite of our paying for it). So the researchers went their own ways to try to pull something out of the mess, and we're just now at the point of having publishable results for one little arm of the original project. Great! The question is what to do next.
Well, the project was a fishing trip meant to give us new leads on the genes involved in breast and other cancers. The niche we ended up with results for concerns ovarian cancer, but we did indeed get some leads, they can be applied to breast cancer, and there is a wide array of experiments to do to follow up. Fabulous. Now we're getting down to the really interesting part.
Only, these other experiments don't lean very heavily on our magnificent new sequencer. A few of them do, but it wouldn't use the new thing all that much. What my boss wants is a super-sexy project to use the new machine. He saw this paper in Nature where they took one breast cancer, a metastatic sample from the same cancer, and the patient's normal cells, and sequenced everything. Quite a technical exploit. But, although the mutations revealed do suggest leads for further study, it's just one sample. An anecdote.
But it was published in Nature!
So go, underlings, and come up with a fast project that will A) use the new sequencer and B) get us a Nature paper.
I think we should take advantage of the results we're writing up now and do an in-depth study exploring those leads, leaning more on high-throughput sequencing and expression data than originally. We can either gather all the data from the half-dozen different experiments into a single giant paper or we can publish it in smaller but still entirely respectable increments.
But no, the boss thinks that will never get us into Nature. He wants essentially to duplicate that paper he read. He finds it fabulous to show that we can sequence the entire genome of a tumor, and that this is the only way to the Big Time. This is a new fishing trip, and there will necessarily be fish, big and small, in the results. It doesn't matter that everything we've learned from the bit just finished will be put away in a drawer. Or that all of our enthousiasm for taking our discovery to new levels is to be discarded in favor of doing one experiment, over and over and over, until the cumulative data covers the genome 20 times. Or that our lab is in need of diversification in the types of experiments we do, and his project confines us further to a single technique.
My lab colleagues and I don't want to do this project. We think it's pie in the sky. We think it's a technical project, not a scientific one. Yes: It is impressive to sequence a whole human genome. We calculate it will take us 12 months, a million and a half euros, and 6 or 7 people to do it, if there are no problems at all. Will it still be so impressive in a year's time? Highly doubtful. It won't be routine, but it won't be Nature, either.
My boss thinks that we haven't come up with anything else that will get us into Nature. He thinks that our unwillingness (if politically we can admit that the team is in fact unwilling: let's say we're sceptical, or hesitant) to take on this challenge shows a lack of spirit/self confidence/vision/whatever.
I have always had my differences with my boss over his approach to projects with 'here are some tools, what can we do with them?' rather than starting with a biological question and turning your tools to answer it. Perhaps there's a part of me that isn't thinking big enough, but I don't think enlarging the size of the project is ever going to make me start my day with "How can I get into Nature?" And I surely won't ever wake up wondering "What can I do with the machine today".


Rachel Cotterill said...

Wow, that sounds horrid. I'm so lucky (touch wood!) not to have supervisors who try to tell me how to do my research. Good luck... let us know how it works out.

Titus said...

Oh Nanu, having worked for two large organisations I can only say it was ever thus!
I really feel for you, as obviously you are incredibly frustrated and disillusioned, with very good reason.
Can suggest nothing other than find a way to make the boss think your idea is his or her idea.
Then (s)he'll go for it.
Best wishes, and good luck.

NanU said...

Making our ideas 'his ideas' is our usual tactic, Titus. This time, though, he's got his teeth in this one project and he's not letting go.