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!

2 thoughts on “Is transactional science kicking transformative science’s butt?”

  1. I really liked your post defining and differentiating transformative and transactional science. This is exactly what I think best explains the STAP story. The moment it was concluded that somatic cells were reprogrammed to embryonic state by just lowering pH (no need even of Yamanaka factors) – the idea was lucrative enough and got published in Nature – but as Prof Vacanti mentioned in his interview to you that STAP and Spore (or that matter VSELs) cells are the same – the story would not have sold and made such a big news/ headlines … Thus the transactional science had an upper hand and has indeed become a trend now and as you conclude is very bad for science. Another logical explanation for STAP data could be that possibly the otherwise extremely quiescent VSELs (or spore cells) in culture overcome their quiescence when exposed to a low pH. More studies will be required to examine this hypotheses. I am trying to do transformative science but it is tough.

  2. There’s a difference between publishing papers and living in the Thunderdome of lab funding. We should separate spending time continuing to contribute to the scientific literature from spending time fighting for grants.

    People who are not publishing tend not to come back and start. Even in fields where one doesn’t need a lot of grant support to keep going (mathematics, theoretical physics), it’s very rare for people who are not publishing to come back and make major breakthroughs (like Wiles).

    Good transformative scientists tend to publish papers as they go. The problem isn’t whether people are publishing papers. The problem is the “extra” stuff that scientists now have to do (such as submitting a half-dozen grants for every one that’s funded). That takes time and space out of an already busy day, leaving no room to be transformational.

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