Is transactional science kicking transformative science’s butt?

Unfortunately transformative science is often not a success when it comes to the sphere and criteria of transactional science. In the transactional domain the only criteria of success is quantitative and measured in dollars (or euros or yen, etc.)

The reality for most scientists today is that no matter how transformative your ideas and your work might be, you also need a huge transactional component to your professional life or pretty soon you won’t have the funding or the lab to do the transformative work anymore. This seems even more the case in today’s low-funded research world.

Is the dominance of transactional science such a bad thing?

Overall it is unhealthy for science since, for example, scientists appear to be spending more time on transactional elements of science rather than on transformative things.

What do I mean by that?

In today’s transactional dominated world, scientists are spending an increasing proportion of their time basically fundraising. Writing grants. Honing grantsmanship. Doing experiments specifically for grant preliminary data rather than driven by transformative ideas. Working the philanthropy side of things.

By contrast, transformative activities would include these kinds of things: reading, thinking, teaching, mentoring, model building, listening to others, doing risky pilot experiments, etc.

So are you as transformative a scientist as you think or has transactional science become a dominant vein in your daily professional life? How is this playing out more generally in science?

Can you have the best of both worlds to be transformative and transactional?

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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