Some thoughts on taking risks in science & medicine

taking risks

taking risksAre you a risk-taker or do you do everything possible to avoid risks?

Taking risks in science is necessary, but is there a wise way to take the risks you do?

Science and medicine need a certain amount of risk and risk-takers to make transformative leaps forward.

The risks in biomedical science can be conceptual (a eureka! moment of a new hypothesis you are going to put out there) or more practical such as inventing a new device or method. As to the former, embracing a new idea that breaks with dogma can be something viewed positively by peers and can lead to cool new scientific advances, but then again it can and often is unsettling to others. What if you are wrong?

Further, being publicly outspoken about hot-button issues related to science policy is risky. It can not only have positive impact, but also risks people’s wrath as well.

Another level of risk can be devoting precious resources and time to a new, cutting edge idea or project in science or medicine. In terms of resources, for any given scientist, physician-scientist, or lab, science is often a zero-sum game at best. When you focus on a particularly risky area, that means you cannot also do some other thing that perhaps is much lower risk, but perhaps is less interesting.

Risks in science can in addition come with submitting grants. You risk rejection. You risk someone like a competitor knowing about your idea or your preliminary data. You risk submitting a grant on topic A and not on topic B, because there are only so many grants one person can submit…although sometimes it feels like a very large number.

It can also feel like us scientists must work an infinite number of hours each week, but here too there’s a zero-sum game in a sense. If you put too much time into grants, for instance, it means you are doing less of other important things like thinking (imagine having abundant time for reflection on scientific problems), reading, writing papers, mentoring (I think too many people in leadership positions spend too little time mentoring, although I’ve been very lucky with the mentors I’ve had as both a trainee and as a faculty member), etc. and you have less time for other sometimes required aspects of your job such as teaching well. Then again, too much teaching can impair one’s research as well.

In biomedical science there are also possible risks to society and to patients, but again some risk is a good thing. In my main fields of stem cell and cancer biology, over the years I’ve seen some risks now looking like they are going to pay off for patients. But other times not so much. Often patients in clinical trials don’t have any benefit especially in early phases, but even so the patients still take on risks and that’s just largely part of the reality of clinical and translational work.

Clinical trial participants are heroes in my book. We have a responsibility not to hype things, to be compassionate, and to help them be informed. In the bigger picture, whether in academic or industry, risk taking in science and medicine must minimize dangers to patients and help patients understand those risks. Whoever is doing it, biomedical risk taking shouldn’t be primarily driven by a desire for profit and it shouldn’t mean dumping the risks on others like patients.

On the flip side, just playing it safe in every way may be less safe than you think. There are risks to just hiding out in one’s lab as a scientist with your head down metaphorically or not…perhaps plugging away on one safe project. There are risks to not “thinking big” in terms of hypotheses.

There are also risks to not speaking out about problems in the field too such as in our stem cell field.

So where’s the sweet spot for risk in all this?

It’s going to vary for each person and their career stage. And no matter what you do or the focus of your efforts you’re going to have to work your butt off in science to succeed. Still, it’s worth some conscious thought as to the risks you are (or at not) thinking are wise to take…instead of proceeding on autopilot.

What’s the biggest risk(s) you ever took in science? Did it pay off? I’d be curious to hear about it. I’m thinking about my own answer to this question and may post on it. Certainly doing this blog over the year has been a risk.

4 Comments


  1. Very timely, Paul, as I sit here risking my home to advance LIF (yes, our good friend, LIF) as a natural solution to treat neurodegeneration.
    Patents are hungry beasts.
    Patients come first though and without the patents we lose the ability to deliver LIF to patients.
    But, no moaning – counting blessings and moving forward. Take care.


  2. Well said! Please keep on risking things being an outspoken advocate on the ethical implications of stem cell tourism and unproven treatments. Many of us greatly appreciate the advocacy you’ve put forward.

    One risk is balancing science with corporate interests. Always a balancing act!


  3. In medicine we usually discuss risk and benefit and the consequences of doing nothing. Your article, as is your profession, seems very different

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