Nature News has a good piece on the 24-hour laboratory. And they're not talking about automation; they're talking about grad students and post-docs staying around all night long. Interestingly, they're focusing on a specific lab to get the details:
But these members of neurosurgeon Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa's laboratory are accustomed to being the last out of the building. In a lab where the boss calls you at 6 a.m., schedules Friday evening lab meetings that can stretch past 10 p.m., and routinely expects you to work over Christmas, sticking it out until midnight on a holiday weekend is nothing unusual.
Many labs are renowned for their intense work ethic and long hours. When I set out to profile such a laboratory, I wanted to find out who is drawn to these environments, what it is really like to work there and whether long hours lead to more or better science. I approached eleven laboratories with reputations for being extremely hard-working. Ten principal investigators turned me down, some expressing a fear of being seen as 'slave-drivers'.
Number eleven — Quiñones-Hinojosa — had no such qualms. His work ethic is no secret. . (He) is gregarious and charming, with an infectious energy and a habit of advertising his humility. But he also knows how intimidating he can be to the people who work for him, and he's not afraid to capitalize on that. In 2007, just two years after he started at Hopkins, he rounded a corner in the cafeteria and saw his lab members sitting at a table, talking and laughing. When they caught sight of him, he says, they stopped, stood up, and went straight back to the lab.
I think that most of us in chemistry have either worked for, or worked near, someone who ran their lab like that. The article makes a point of showing how this professor tries to select people for his group who either like or will put up with it - and as long as everyone knows the score going in, I suppose that I don't have a problem with it. No one's forcing you to go work for Quiñones-Hinojosa, after all (but if you do, he'll certainly force you to work once you're there!) I would personally not make the choice to enter a lab like that one, but others might regard it as a worthwhile trade.
But there's the larger question of whether science has to (or even should) be done that way. As the article goes on to say:
But not everyone agrees that more hours yield more results. Dean Simonton, a psychology researcher at the University of California, Davis, who has studied scientific creativity, says that the pressure for publications, grants and tenure may have created a single-minded, "monastic" culture in science. But some research suggests that highly creative scientists tend to have broader interests and more hobbies than their less creative colleagues, he says. Chemist Stephen Buchwald of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology urges the members of his lab to take a month's holiday every year, and not to think about work when they're gone. "The fact is, I want people to be able to think," he says. "If they're completely beaten down, they're not going to be very creative."
My guess is that we're looking at two different kinds of science here. If you're in an area where there's a huge amount of data to be gathered and processed (as there is with the tumor samples in Quiñones-Hinojosa's lab), then the harder you crank, the more results come out the other end. They know what they have to do, and they've decided to do it twenty hours a day. On the other hand, you can't put in those hours thinking up the next revolutionary idea. "Be creative! Now! And don't stop being creative until midnight! I want to see a new electrophilic bond-forming reaction idea before you hit that door!" It doesn't work.
Robert Root-Bernstein's Discovering goes into some of these questions. It's an odd book that I recommend once in a while (much of it is in the form of fictional conversation), but it brings together a lot of information on scientific discovery and creativity that's very hard to find. A quote in it from J. J. Thomson seems appropriate here:
"If you pay a man a salary for doing research, he and you will want to have something to point to at the end of the year to show that the money has not been wasted. In promising work of the highest class, however, results do not come in this regular fashion, in fact years may pass without any tangible results being obtained, and the position of the paid worker would be very embarrassing and he would naturally take to work on a lower, or at any rate, different plane where he could be sure of getting year by year tangible results which would justify his salary. The position is this: You want this kind of research, but if you pay a man to do it, it will drive him to research of a different kind. The only thing to do is pay him for doing something else and give him enough leisure to do research for the love of it."
So there's room for both kinds of work (or should be). Just make sure that you know if you're getting into a pressure cooker beforehand, and that that's what you want or need to do. And if you're going to try to big creative route, you'd better have some interesting ideas to start from and some mental horsepower to work with, or you could spend the rest of your career wandering around in circles. . .