What I would miss, if I had to go into another line of work besides research, would be the surprises. I'd miss other things, but that might be one of the first. At this point, I don't know what I'd do with a job where I always knew what was coming. I should clarify that - I'm well aware that if, say, I was the head chef in a restaurant, that I wouldn't know what order was coming in next, or how many we were going to be hit with at once. But people would mostly order things that were on the menu, wouldn't they? No one would come in and demand stir-fried sargasso on a bed of wood chips or a coelocanth en croute.
But that level of craziness can be achieved in a good research project. What I enjoy is the occasional result that just makes no sense at all, that reminds us that we really don't know what we're doing. This happens all the time in chemistry - it's a very inexperienced organic chemist who thinks that everything's under control. There's no reaction so reliable that it can't turn on you under the right (wrong) conditions, and as the process chemists know, there aren't many that can't be tamed if you're willing to spend enough time and money. To partially make up for those, there are also times when something works wonderfully even though you gave it almost no chance.
If the chemistry has random elements, then you can imagine how things start to act once you move toward living systems. The dosing behavior of a new compound is, almost without fail, impossible to predict, and a stone solid fortune is waiting for anyone who can say different and prove it. Tiny changes to a molecule's structure will suddenly make its blood levels soar (or flatline completely), and if we knew that that was going to happen, we wouldn't have run the experiments, would we?
Toxicology is, without question, the poster child for unexpected results. As I've said before, if you don't hold your breath when your drug goes in for tox testing, you haven't been doing this very long. I had a project once where adding a single methyl group to the a molecule changed it from being an infallible overnight rodent-killer to something that could be given for two weeks straight at ten times the normal dose. Clearly we managed to slip out of whatever protein target it was dealing death, but these things can't be modeled or predicted.
What would I do with myself if I knew how these things were going to come out? What scientist could stand it? I can picture a nightmare world of time-to-make-the-donuts folks in lab coats, shuffling in to press the buttons and turn the cranks to produce yet another winner. It'd be like watching a baseball game where every batter hit a home run. Medicinal chemistry's not going to get there in my lifetime, but if it ever threatened to, I'd pack up and move off to the frontier, wherever in the scientific world that might be by then, to the place where I could once again look at my results and say "Well, why the @#$! did that happen"?