July 14, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

On the science riskometer, how much are you willing to take?

RiskometerSome would argue that much of life boils down to a series of risk versus reward decisions.

This equation-based way of viewing life can be applied both to personal and professional levels. When it comes to the latter and to biomedical scientists specifically, how much risk should we take?

What forms could this risk take?

On a scientific level, risk could involve publishing something too fast before you are sure the results are accurate or publishing data too slowly and getting scooped. Or you could submit a grant that is a high risk-high reward proposition and find reviewers are uncomfortable with the level of risk so you don’t get funding.

What I’m more interested in today is the idea of scientists taking risks (or not) by publicly taking specific positions on policy matters.

Years ago I once asked the venerable DrugMonkey of DrugMonkey Blog fame (a great blog primarily on science funding issues including NIH grantsmanship) about the possible risk of being a blogging scientist using one’s own name as I do. DrugMonkey replied sagely, “Everything is a risk” for us scientists. Perhaps this is one reason why DrugMonkey blogs using a pseudonym.

If one feels strongly about a science policy issue, how outspoken should a scientist be? Pushing this question further, if a scientist sees something that she feels is wrong, should she say something publicly even if that risks negative repercussions or even outright retaliation? What if it feels like “everyone” else or at least powerful people have the opposite view?

We can see historical examples of where saying nothing was harmful by allowing bad things to continue happening and escalate. Most of us can think of other situations where contrarian people who spoke up got hurt because they took that risk. Of course there may be times we think something is wrong and then later we realize that maybe we were wrong.

How “wrong” does the situation have to be for you to pull the trigger on standing up publicly at any given time on an important policy issue? Where do you fall on the riskometer? Has this changed over time and if so, why?

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