September 21, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Is transactional science kicking transformative science’s butt?

What kind of scientist are you?

I suspect that all of us scientists like to think that most of the work that we do is transformative and that we are a transformative scientist.

In science we hear quite a lot about the importance of transformative, innovative science.

But can everyone be doing transformative science all the time? I don’t think that’s realistically possible. There are of course probably degrees of transformativeness for various specific projects.

Today the research world often defines success not using “transformative” as the bull’s-eye, but rather employing something very different. Instead, success is frequently defined in science at a transactional level.


What is transactional science?

This kind of science is focused on the notion of a transaction. In this system, successful research is exchanged for or rewarded by monetary or other concrete outcomes.

For example, in transactional science a given number of publications of a certain quantitated impact may give the scientist in question a reward in the form of a funded grant.

Making this more complicated and not so black-and-white is the fact that grant reviewers are told to value transformative and innovative proposals, but the grant review and award process is intrinsically transactional.

In a transactional system the “deciders” (i.e. the reviewers and program officers, institute leaders, etc.) cannot help but look for quantifiable criteria on which to base their decisions and I would argue that transformative science mostly defies simple quantitation. There are metrics such as citation numbers, h-index, and such for papers as well as total numbers of papers, but they do not always capture the qualitative nature of transformative science.

Another example of transactional science would be a researcher inventing something that leads to a patent and ultimately a profitable product. Read on on Page 2!

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