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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« The Great Divide | Main | Time and Chance »

October 9, 2005

Needs and Wants

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Posted by Derek

Last week's question about whether the best people are going into this line of work brings up quite a few other related topics. For example, what motivates people to do research in the first place?

I've seen that question answered in a lot of different ways. At one end of the scale, I've had colleagues whose main motivation was Not To Fail. You see more lab assistants with that mentality than lab heads, but it's not unknown at any level. People in this category duck when they see something tricky coming their way, because those things have too high a chance of failure. They'd much rather be on a grind-it-out part of the project, cranking away on a bunch of analogs that everyone already knows have some activity. One step above that, they'd rather be on a project that everyone thinks will be a success.

I live the opposite stereotype. I'd much rather be on a project that people don't think has a good chance of working, because then you get a chance to be a hero. If it fails, hey, that's what people thought it would do anyway. (And as for those can't-miss projects, no thanks. They miss just about as often as everything else, and someone might need to be blamed for it). The best way to motivate my species is to come in and say "You know, nobody thinks that this can be done. Want to prove them wrong?" I'm not (necessarily) making a claim of superiority for this mindset. You don't want a department top-heavy with either type.

Then there are people whose motivations are outside the scientific realm. Most of those folks want to move up the ladder. If being a good scientist is the way to do that, they're willing to give it a try. If laughing at all the boss's jokes works better, that's fine, too. Whatever it takes. One thing about these people - they tend to stay focused. Someone with scientific interests can cause trouble by flitting from topic to topic as their fancy takes them, but a person who wants a promotion more than anything sticks to that task. The trick is to make the needs of the research organization match up reasonably well with what a person like this needs to have to advance. Then, everyone's happy. When those agendas start to diverge, you summon trouble.

Comments (3) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Who Discovers and Why


1. NJbiologist on October 9, 2005 11:30 PM writes...

How about the motivation that comes from being the first person to see something, or understand it? That sounds like #2, only I'm not that much of a risk-chaser. I haven't yet figured out a good solvent to use on tar and feathers.

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2. Greg Hlatky on October 10, 2005 7:59 AM writes...

All my projects have been like the mule: neither pride of ancestry nor hope of posterity.

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3. Bill Tozier on October 12, 2005 6:50 AM writes...

To understand why people do research, it may help to closely examine how they chose the projects they pursue, and how they react to new results and approaches.

I'm of the opinion that any good idea that goes unexplored by somebody is wasted. I have limited time. So I've been giving away extra (and in my opinion good) ideas for research projects for years: at meetings, in conversations with friends and colleagues, at seminars, in person and by email. What I find interesting is how few of them, even when my correspondent is doing something very closely related to what I suggest, actually get acted upon.

I don't think I'm that bad at communicating scientific and engineering ideas. I don't think I'm that dumb, either, since eventually somebody else does what I suggested way back when. I'm not sure that I have status enough or of the right kind. But what I really think is that in most cases a researcher's research program is more than just a long-term plan: it's a means of self-expression and -definition in the social environment of their world.

The strangest and most confusing cases to me are those where I meet somebody in one discipline who's diligently reinventing what's essentially a shallow duplicate of a years-old research program from some other discipline. For example, back when I was working inside (but not at) a Big Pharma, building combinatorial libraries in the lab, salient results from machine learning and general combinatorial optimization papers were essentially being ignored in lieu of home-cooked "biochemical" models of the library-building and screening process. The results ended up being similar but much less general, years later.

Things like that make me question the assumption that research decisions are made on the basis of risk of project success. A number of auxiliary social aspects play an important role, as well.

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