From the mouths of ... college seniors.
Last week, I was "in the field" working on my research. The professor whose laboratory I was observing mentioned to the students in the lab that I'm the one who teaches the ethics-for-science-majors class. One of the students, clearly a wiseass (and I can tell because I crack wise myself), asked, "Oh, do you teach how to fabricate data?"
"No," I replied. "In the class we talk about why fabricating data is a Very Bad Thing for scientists to do. Besides, you know that people get fired for doing that kind of thing."
"Sure," said the wiseass. "But what happens when your research just doesn't work? You need to produce results or you'll get fired. You keep your employer happy by generating results ... if things don't work out in the lab, what else are you supposed to do?" Smirking just a little, the wiseass rattled off a list of professions in which lying is de rigueur. Why not science, too?
Now, I recognize that these questions were tongue in cheek, asked by a student experiencing the colossal difficulty of getting original laboratory research to do anything one could descibe as "working". At the same time, students like the wiseass are keen observers of the world of science. Scientists in industry are part of an organization that needs to worry about the bottom line. No results may mean no marketable product, which eventually means the company goes under and the scientists are out of jobs. The folks at Merck know this is a real problem -- patent protection is about to end on one of their big money-makers, and the Vioxx results turned out not to be as promising as was initially thought (what with the life-threatening side effects). So, with fewer marketable inventions than was hoped, Merck looks like it will also be employing fewer scientists.
Obviously, you wouldn't want Merck scientists making stuff up (or even tweaking real results to make them look better) just to please the boss and have something to put on the market ... people could get hurt, and then come the lawsuits and the downsizing. But the close connection between success in the laboratory (and in the clinical trials) and keeping the company afloat has to do something to the psychology of the young researcher. It is a fact of the scientific life that most of the experiments people try do not work, and very few work on the first (or second, or third, ...) try. Kuhn may have been right that the good scientist, encountering difficulties in the lab, blames herself rather than her theory for the problem. (Also, there's a lot of blaming of equipment and reagents, often legitimate.) But when you're the new scientist in the lab, fresh out of school and with less experience than those around you, how can you help but worry that the boss will blame your lack of results on your scientific ineptitude? How long do you figure you have to turn it around before they thank you for your time and send you to human resources for your exit interview?
One of the characteristics of scientific research in the real world is you don't know how it will come out ahead of time. You may have some strong hunches, but hunches mean nothing without real results. And, if you're trying something that no one has ever done before, the very best plan is just a guess. It may fail spectacularly. There is no amount of hard work and technical skill that can guarantee your success. Maybe you'll find a way to solve the problem your research is aimed at solving, but maybe you won't.
Yet you're also trying to solve the problem of staying employed as a scientist in a world where solving problems (or not) can be the deciding factor in who stays employed. You can start to understand where the college senior contemplating a career in science gets stressed out.
Experiments that fail still tell us something, even if it's just information about approaches to solving the problem that don't work. If there were journals devoted to experimental approaches that did not work, I guarantee you they would be read regularly and thoroughly by working scientists. But short of recognizing the scholarly contributions of scientists who identify unsuccessful protocols, is there a way to let scientists just do good science without having to keep their eye on the bottom line?
Technorati tags: scientific integrity, pressure to produce