Stupid scientist tricks: the top 10 dumbest things that scientists do discussed in my elephant (Dumbo) in the lab series

I’ve been doing a series of blog posts called “The elephant in the lab” in which I discuss taboo, but important topics in science.

Today we are focusing on the top 10 dumbest things that scientists do…and hence today’s entry in this series might be called “Dumbo in the Lab” instead of “Elephant in the Lab”. I also like to call these “Stupid scientist tricks”.Dumbo

Do scientists do really dumb things? Yes, some do and in fact their decisions can be spectacularly stupid. Below is my top 10 list of scientific dumbness.

Every one of these I have either witnessed myself or indirectly seen evidence of at one point or another in my career.

10. Doing research on something that they are not interested in. What a waste. If you don’t feel passionately about your research then you need to make a change. Spending years and dealing with all the difficult things in science only to study something that you don’t care about is about as dumb as it gets.

9. Sending a work-related email in anger. It seems like email is a siren calling out for scientists to use it to send out stupid, self-destructive messages to others. I’ve seen it happen numerous times and sometimes I’ve been the recipient of such an email. How can one little email be so destructive? Easy. The writer puts their feelings into far stronger language than they would ever have had the guts to use in person. Perhaps they send it to or Cc their Chair or a Dean. Perhaps it is a nasty email to a trainee that borders on abusive. Of course the wonderfully horrible thing about email is that once you send it, you can never unsend it and in fact emails are stored on computer databases indefinitely.

8. PIs getting involved with someone in their lab. Lab romances are not uncommon, but what I’m talking about is a PI getting involved with a student, postdoc, or technician. Sure, there may be rare examples of this working out fine, but from what I’ve seen it more often leads to a living hell for the people involved.

7. Breaking important institutional rules. OK, so scientists are not exactly big on following rules. I accept that. However, there are just some rules that you must follow and it is so profoundly dumb not to follow them. Such rules include getting required institutional training (sexual harassment, HIPPA, etc). Other important rules might also include working with rather than against institutional agencies such as EH&S. Breaking such rules may be reflected in things like teaching your lab to inappropriately dump waste, fill out paperwork incorrectly or not at all, be careless with radioactivity, ignore rules generally, etc. This may seem nitpicky, but if you don’t follow these rules you are asking for trouble. At some point you’ll piss off the wrong person and they’ll shut down your lab or worse. I’ve seen this happen to PIs about a half a dozen times in my career and in several of these cases their labs were temporarily shutdown with disastrous consequences.

6. Hiring the wrong person because you “need someone” in your lab. This happens all the time and it is very unwise. There’s an old adage in science that goes “having no one is better than hiring the wrong person”. It’s true, but why then do PIs so often hire someone that they have misgivings about?

5. Failing to fire a problematic member of the lab. When someone is really not working out in your lab for an extended period of time, it is in your and their best interest, as well as that of the lab as a whole, for you to remove them from the lab. Yeah, firing someone is neither fun nor easy, but keeping around someone who is not working out is recipe for disaster.

4. Not continuing to develop yourself as a scientist. Sometimes scientists get so busy with all the daily balls to juggle that years can go by without them even thinking about their own continuing education and development as a scientist. It is a myth that your development as a scientist has reached its culmination when you get your own lab or even when you become a full professor. It’s too easy for some scientists to work their butts off on 100 different things, but ignore themselves. You, as a scientist, still have a lot to learn and much wisdom to gain no matter how long you’ve been in science.

3. Making enemies and burning bridges. Science is as much about people as anything going on in a test tube, but many scientists are not exactly “people” persons. Throw in some frustration and a holier-than-thou attitude, and the end result can be ugly. So often I see otherwise smart scientists doing stuff that can’t help but make them enemies. The last thing anyone needs in science is enemies so why actively make enemies when you might make a few even by accident without even realizing it? The answer is “don’t”! One “good” way of making enemies is to lie to people who trust you. For example, take their unpublished (or even published) reagents and then don’t follow the restrictions that you agreed to adhere to as a condition of getting the reagents. Ding, enemy. I’m a pretty forgiving person, but the couple times someone has done this to me I can’t see myself ever getting beyond it. In one case, someone who shall remain nameless got unpublished reagents from me then not only broke out agreement, but also they tried to us them to scoop me. Talk about adding insult to injury.

Another dumb spinoff of this kind of behavior is once you know you are leaving one place and going to another, you actively burn bridges. You tell people off at institution A because you know you are already on your way out the door to Univ. of B. Very stupid. Science is a small world and you may very well find that you need people from institution A again during your career. Or you may turn a semi-friend into an enemy.

2. Letting your ego take over. Maybe some people are in science for fame and glory (when might I get that Nobel Prize phone call?), but that is a bad motivation if you are also looking to do good science. Professors work hard to get where they are and having some pride in that is understandable and reasonable. Too often, however, I see scientists with these overinflated egos…egos so big that they end up doing very stupid things (many of the other items on this list for example are consequences of having a super-sized ego). Mark Hochhauser has a nice piece on the stupid consequences of huge egos in science.

1. Committing misconduct for the goal of getting a paper published or grant funded. These are desperate times for many people in science. The old expression “Desperate times calls for desperate measures” only dangerously applies to science. Jeopardizing your career and the careers of your trainees and collaborators by turning to the dark side is not only dumb, but also illogical. It’s not worth it.

Earlier posts in this series included taboo topics about iPS cells, the dirty dozen easy steps to killing a paper, the scientist’s guide to insulting other scientists (followed by insults 2.0 even harsher), and most recentlythe top 10 reasons that scientists leave their current institutions for others. People seem to love these posts because they are refreshingly honest and present the complicate realities of life in science.