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Are you saying I can’t go home until we cure cancer? Obligations of scientists (part 7)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In the previous post in this series, we examined the question of what scientists who are trained with significant financial support from the public (which, in the U.S., means practically every scientist trained at the Ph.D. level) owe to the public providing that support. The focus there was personal: I was trained to be a physical chemist, free of charge due to the public’s investment, but I stopped making new scientific knowledge in 1994, shortly after my Ph.D. was conferred.

From a certain perspective, that makes me a deadbeat, a person who has fallen down on her obligations to society.

Maybe that perspective strikes you as perverse, but there are working scientists who seem to share it.

Consider this essay by cancer researcher Scott E. Kern raising the question of whether cancer researchers at Johns Hopkins who don’t come into the lab on a Sunday afternoon have lost sight of their obligations to people with cancer.

Kern wonders if scientists who manage to fit their laboratory research into the confines of a Monday-through-Friday work week might lack a real passion for scientific research. He muses that full weekend utilization of their modern cancer research facility might waste less money (in terms of facilities and overhead, salaries and benefits). He suggests that the researchers who have are not hard at work in the lab on a weekend are falling down on their moral duty to cure cancer as soon as humanly possible.

The unsupported assumptions in Kern’s piece are numerous (and far from novel). Do we know that having each research scientist devote more hours in the lab increases the rate of scientific returns? Or might there plausibly be a point of diminishing returns, where additional lab-hours produce no appreciable return? Where’s the economic calculation to consider the potential damage to the scientists from putting in 80 hours a week (to their cognitive powers, their health, their personal relationships, their experience of a life outside of work, maybe even their enthusiasm for science)? After all, lots of resources are invested in educating and training researchers — enough so that one wouldn’t want to damage those researchers on the basis of an (unsupported) hypothesis offered in the pages of Cancer Biology & Therapy.

And while Kern is doing economic calculations, he might want to consider the impact on facilities of research activity proceeding full-tilt, 24/7. Without some downtime, equipment and facilities might wear out faster than they would otherwise.

Nowhere here does Kern consider the option of hiring more researchers to work 40 hour weeks, instead of persuading the existing research workforce into spending 60, 80, 100 hours a week in the lab.

These researchers might still end up bringing work home (if they ever get a chance to go home).

Kern might dismiss this suggestion on purely economic grounds — organizations are more likely to want to pay for fewer employees (with benefits) who can work more hours than to pay to have the same number of hours of work done my more employees. He might also dismiss it on the basis that the people who really have the passion needed to do the research to cure cancer will not prioritize anything else in their lives above doing that research and finding that cure.

But one assumes passion of the sort Kern seems to have in mind would be the kind of thing that would drive researchers to the lab no matter what, even in the face of long hours, poor pay, grinding fatigue. If that is so, it’s not clear how the problem is solved by browbeating researchers without this passion into working more hours because they owe it to cancer patients. Indeed, Kern might consider, in light of the relative dearth of researchers with passion sufficient to fill the cancer research facilities on weekends, the necessity of making use of the research talents and efforts of people who don’t want to spend 60 hours a week in the lab. Kern’s piece suggests he’d have a preference for keeping such people out of the research ranks (despite the significant societal investment made in their scientific training), but by his own account there would hardly be enough researchers left in that case to keep research moving forward.

Might not these conditions prompt us to reconsider whether the received wisdom of scientific mentors is always so wise? Wouldn’t this be a reasonable place to reevaluate the strategy for accomplishing the grand scientific goal?

And Kern does not even consider a pertinent competing hypothesis, that people often have important insights into how to move research forward in the moments when they step back and allow their minds to wander. Perhaps less time away from one’s project means fewer of these insights — which, on its face, would be bad for the project of curing cancer.

The strong claim at the center of Kern’s essay is an ethical claim about what researchers owe cancer patients, about what cancer patients can demand from researchers (or any other members of society), and on what basis.

He writes:

During the survey period, off-site laypersons offer comments on my observations. “Don’t the people with families have a right to a career in cancer research also?” I choose not to answer. How would I? Do the patients have a duty to provide this “right”, perhaps by entering suspended animation? Should I note that examining other measures of passion, such as breadth of reading and fund of knowledge, may raise the same concern and that “time” is likely only a surrogate measure? Should I note that productive scientists with adorable family lives may have “earned” their positions rather than acquiring them as a “right”? Which of the other professions can adopt a country-club mentality, restricting their activities largely to a 35–40 hour week? Don’t people with families have a right to be police? Lawyers? Astronauts? Entrepreneurs?

Kern’s formulation of this interaction of rights and duties strikes me as odd. Essentially, he’s framing this as a question of whether people with families have a right to a career in cancer research, rather than whether cancer researchers have a right to have families (or any other parts of their lives that exist beyond their careers). Certainly, there have been those who have treated scientific careers as vocations requiring many sacrifices, who have acted as if there is a forced choice between having a scientific career and having a family (unless one has a wife to tend to that family).

We should acknowledge, however, that having a family life is just one way to “have a life.” Therefore, let’s consider the question this way: Do cancer researchers have a right to a life outside of work?

Kern’s suggestion is that this “right,” when exercised by researchers, is something that cancer patients end up paying for with their lives (unless they go into suspended animation while cancer researchers are spending time with their families or puttering around their gardens).

The big question, then, is what the researcher’s obligations are to the cancer patient — or to society in general.

If we’re to answer that question, I don’t think it’s fair to ignore the related questions: What are society’s obligations to the cancer patient? What are society’s obligations to researchers? And what are the cancer patient’s obligations in all of this?

We’ve already spent some time discussing scientists’ putative obligation to repay society’s investment in their training:

  • society has paid for the training the scientists have received (through federal funding of research projects, training programs, etc.)
  • society has pressing needs that can best (only?) be addressed if scientific research is conducted
  • those few members of society who have specialized skills that are needed to address particular societal needs have a duty to use those skills to address those needs (i.e., if you can do research and most other people can’t, then to the extent that society as a whole needs the research that you can do, you ought to do it)

Arguably, finding cures and treatments for cancer would be among those societal needs.

Once again the Spider-Man ethos rears its head: with great power comes great responsibility, and scientific researchers have great power. If cancer researchers won’t help find cures and treatments for cancer, who else can?

Here, I think we should pause to note that there is probably an ethically relevant difference between offering help and doing everything you possibly can. It’s one thing to donate a hundred bucks to charity and quite another to give all your money and sell all your worldly goods in order to donate the proceeds. It’s a different thing for a healthy person to donate one kidney than to donate both kidneys plus the heart and lungs.

In other words, there is help you can provide, but there seems also to be a level of help that it would be wrong for anyone else to demand of you. Possibly there is also a level of help that it would be wrong for you to provide even if you were willing to do so because it harms you in a fundamental and/or irreparable way.

And once we recognize that such a line exists between the maximum theoretical help you could provide and the help you are obligated to provide, I think we have to recognize that the needs of cancer patients do not — and should not — trump every other interest of other individuals or of society as a whole. If a cancer patient cannot lay claim to the heart and lungs of a cancer researcher, then neither can that cancer patient lay claim to every moment of a cancer researcher’s time.

Indeed, in this argument of duties that spring from ability, it seems fair to ask why it is not the responsibility of everyone who might get cancer to train as a cancer researcher and contribute to the search for a cure. Why should tuning out in high school science classes, or deciding to pursue a degree in engineering or business or literature, excuse one from responsibility here? (And imagine how hard it’s going to be to get kids to study for their AP Chemistry or AP Biology classes when word gets out that their success is setting them up for a career where they ought never to take a day off, go to the beach, or cultivate friendships outside the workplace. Nerds can connect the dots.)

Surely anyone willing to argue that cancer researchers owe it to cancer patients to work the kind of hours Kern seems to think would be appropriate ought to be asking what cancer patients — and the precancerous — owe here.

Does Kern think researchers owe all their waking hours to the task because there are so few of them who can do this research? Reports from job seekers over the past several years suggest that there are plenty of other trained scientists who could do this research but have not been able to secure employment as cancer researchers. Some may be employed in other research fields. Others, despite their best efforts, may not have secured research positions at all. What are their obligations here? Ought those employed in other research areas to abandon their current research to work on cancer, departments and funders be damned? Ought those who are not employed in a research field to be conducting their own cancer research anyway, without benefit of institution or facilities, research funding or remuneration?

Why would we feel scientific research skills, in particular, should make the individuals who have them so subject to the needs of others, even to the exclusion of their own needs?

Verily, if scientific researchers and the special skills they have are so very vital to providing for the needs of other members of society — vital enough that people like Kern feel it’s appropriate to criticize them for wanting any time out of the lab — doesn’t society owe it to its members to give researchers every resource they need for the task? Maybe even to create conditions in which everyone with the talent and skills to solve the scientific problems society wants solved can apply those skills and talents — and live a reasonably satisfying life while doing so?

My hunch is that most cancer patients would actually be less likely than Kern to regard cancer researchers as of merely instrumental value. I’m inclined to think that someone fighting a potentially life-threatening disease would be reluctant to deny someone else the opportunity to spend time with loved ones or to savor an experience that makes life worth living. To the extent that cancer researchers do sacrifice some aspects of the rest of their life to make progress on their work, I reckon most cancer patients appreciate these sacrifices. If more is needed for cancer patients, it seems reasonable to place this burden on society as a whole — teeming with potential cancer patients and their relatives and friends — to enable more (and more effective) cancer research to go on without drastically restricting the lives of the people qualified to conduct it, or writing off their interests in their own human flourishing.

As a group, scientists do have special capabilities with which they could help society address pressing problems. To the extent that they can help society address those problems, scientists probably should — not least because scientists are themselves part of society. But despite their special powers, scientists are still human beings with needs, desires, interests, and aspirations. A society that asks scientists to direct their skills and efforts towards solving its problems also has a duty to give scientists the same opportunities to flourish that it provides for its members who happen not to be scientists.

In the next post in this series, I’ll propose a less economic way to think about just what society might be buying when it invests in the training of scientists. My hope is that this will give us a richer and more useful picture of the obligations scientists and non-scientists have to each other as they are sharing a world.

* * * * *
Ancestors of this post first appeared on Adventures in Ethics and Science

Kern, S. E. (2010). Where’s the passion?. Cancer biology & therapy, 10(7),655-657.
Posts in this series:

Questions for the non-scientists in the audience.

Questions for the scientists in the audience.

What do we owe you, and who’s “we” anyway? Obligations of scientists (part 1)

Scientists’ powers and ways they shouldn’t use them: Obligations of scientists (part 2)

Don’t be evil: Obligations of scientists (part 3)

How plagiarism hurts knowledge-building: Obligations of scientists (part 4)

What scientists ought to do for non-scientists, and why: Obligations of scientists (part 5)

What do I owe society for my scientific training? Obligations of scientists (part 6)

Are you saying I can’t go home until we cure cancer? Obligations of scientists (part 7)

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Jerzy v. 3.0. 10:09 am 01/30/2014

    Sounds like outrageous attempt of justifying over-working junior staff and poor time management.

    This kind of middle level manager in the normal company would be degraded and possibly sued for abusing employees. Here, the parent institution takes part of the blame.

    I wonder how many results coming from that lab are errors of tired scientists?

    What those PIs hiring enough people and organizing work efficently should say?

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  2. 2. Jerzy v. 3.0. 10:23 am 01/30/2014

    Sorry to distract from the ethical issues. I think this story carries no real moral dilemma. It is more an illustration that academic world lacks basic training in management, organization and inter-personal skills for senior scientific staff.

    And, honestly, I shivel in terror thinking about errors in research which tired your scientist can make. Writing down numbers wrong, not correctly applying a dose of drug, exchanging two vials… Easy to make, almost impossible to spot later, horrible to correct. It is not digging ditches.

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  3. 3. NormNelson 12:39 pm 01/30/2014

    I think Mr. Kern has been infected by the same virus that afflicts much of industry in the United States. Increasingly, corporations in the US, egged on by Wall Street, seem to take the attitude that short-term profitability is the only thing that matters, and the best way to short-term profitability is to “manage costs” – meaning in most cases to demand *more* from fewer, lower-paid workers. And as corporate attitudes increasingly afflict universities in the US (witness the amazing growth of administrator numbers and salaries) it is understandable that certain people will buy into this ridiculous idea.

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  4. 4. rkipling 1:15 pm 01/30/2014

    The reference to special powers of scientists and Spiderman analogies used in this series of essays has troubled me a little from the beginning. I couldn’t quite understand exactly what troubled me about it at first. As I thought about it more, I suppose the characterization of scientists as completely a breed apart is what bothers me.

    If you step back a bit, almost everyone could have an obligation to society. Almost everyone could devote more of their time and resources to the betterment of the general public. And at least in some cases that extra effort could save lives. We can all think of examples. It isn’t necessary to enumerate them. So, while I have no problem examining the obligations of scientists as a group, I argue they really aren’t a special philosophical case.

    I wonder if obligation doesn’t come down to a very personal question? Each individual falls somewhere on the scale of service to others from total narcissism to complete self-sacrifice. Where each of us lands on the scale depends on influences such as religion, personal philosophy, and other factors beyond my imagination. Is it important whether the same good turn is motivated by a sense of duty, accolades from others, or anticipation of heavenly reward? I don’t know.

    Unless Dr. Kern optimizes his intake of nourishment and sleep to maximize his research efforts, he could be said to have lost sight of his obligations. By offering any effort less than that, an individual is balancing their personal needs against those of society. It comes down to a personal choice.

    There is another rationale for making extra effort. For some people work can be their most pleasant activity. I remember an HR manager long ago giving me a stress test. If anyone reading this is old enough, you may remember the mood rings and such. This stress detector was a small fingertip pad. The idea was that you put your index finger on it for a minute or so and it turned color according to your stress level. She first demonstrated her stress level. It turned from black to a bright color (I don’t remember what color.) She considered that my management position was also high stress. After it reset, she had me use it. After one minute it was unchanged, still black. After five minutes still black. Frustrated she asked, “Why don’t you show stress?” I told her that it was likely because I was doing what I most enjoyed.

    I don’t know if that stupid stress tester had any validity or not. But for some people work = hobby. Extra work for them is fun, not a sacrifice.

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  5. 5. rkipling 1:24 pm 01/30/2014

    Jerzy v. 3.0., NormNelson,

    I understand what you are saying, but I think the Dr. Kern example is one of personal commitment to the cause and not corporate greed. I’m not saying corporate greed does not exist.

    My guess is that most of the scientist types, who are the subject of these essays, probably have a bit more autonomy than the workers you reference.

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  6. 6. Spironis 3:20 pm 01/30/2014

    Write a PERT chart in which the cure for cancer is explicit. Any employee who does not comply is discharged for cause – insubordination.

    If you want to find the bottleneck, the first place to look is at the top of the bottle. Management is a stomach: it has no brain; it knows it is hungry, and the inevitable results are somebody else’s problem. How can Management be held responsible when it never lifts the heavy end? Managers makes decisions, workers make mistakes. Do a hot swap of fungible resources to keep the pot boiling.

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  7. 7. rkipling 4:53 pm 01/30/2014


    W. Edwards Deming contended that management was the cause of at least 80% of problems in business. Although I hope my company is the exception, overall 80% seems low. Having said that, this isn’t on topic.

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  8. 8. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:23 am 01/31/2014

    I am fine with Dr Kern making personal choices, as long as he does not demand younger staff to make equal sacrifices. Elsewhere in SciAm blogs there are discussions eg. how young scientists cannot reconcile time spent in the lab and having a family.

    Overall, I think people at some time point should think how to work better, rather than work more hours. For example, select experiments which give best chance of successful discovery.

    I worked in a very disorganized lab. PI saw no point of buying an extra equipment. There was an attitude of randomly performing many experiments in hope of stumbling across something interesting. Always it was expected that people simply work more over evenings and weekends.

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  9. 9. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:28 am 01/31/2014

    @Janet D. Stemwedel

    It was interesting series of blogs.

    It would be interesting to have similar articles on the obligations of scientists towards other scientists and research. For example, how to divide authorship in a publication is often a difficult issue. Another is scientists “scooping” discoveries of others. Yet another is importance of citation index – something known to be inaccurate but given more and more importance.

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  10. 10. rkipling 7:02 am 01/31/2014

    Jerzy v. 3.0.,

    That sounds like a very unpleasant and unproductive work environment.

    Link to this

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