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Cancer research is over-resourced

Science is an inefficient market and one of the biggest offenders is cancer research. It is the most funded area of research with almost 24,000 people employed in the cancer research industry. Patient outcomes are certainly improving but most research dollars go towards preclinical discovery type work and I don’t think anyone would argue that most of the research we do each day is not actually going to help patients. Both in terms of dollars spent and amount of work hours being put into research, there is a problem of overabundance which is leading to waste.

A significant part of the compensation one gets from doing science is ‘soft’. These are things like flexibility, personal satisfaction, and an ego boost. Scientists, relative to the education they need, are paid horribly. If you are lucky, you can do 4 years of undergrad, a 6 year PhD, and a 5 year postdoc and still get paid 5 figures. If you chose a different career where you work just as hard, you can easily clear 6 figures straight out of college. This is because those 6 figure jobs are selective. You can get fired. There is an intensive interview process and a culture of paying talented people more to recruit them to your organization. In academia, there is a flat culture that treats everyone the same. There is a flat rate for graduate students and postdocs determined typically by government paylines. It would be unfair to pay certain trainees more than others despite differences in quality or volume of work output. When the going rate for postdoc salary ranges from 40-70k, smart people are not going to want to be scientists. In order to recruit smart people, you need to pay them properly.

What differentiates people (and how people ‘pay’ themselves more) is how many papers one can publish, awards they can win, and how fast they can do it. When everyone is trying to do this all at once, this encourages sloppy science and cheating. There is a reproducibility crisis in part because people are not incentivized to make sure things work or to report things not working. You are not incentivized to spend the time uncovering causal mechanisms but rather to report phenotypes with uncertain followup.

A logical followup would be to suggest that the solution to address these problems of low pay is to increase funding for science so the dollars can be used to pay people more. The issue with this is that empirically what happens when funding increases is that you don’t see improvements in quality, but instead you encourage an increase in volume. You see more labs open because there are more opportunities for early investigators. Similarly in the private sector, you see more financings for new companies rather than consolidation or increased funding for established entities.

I think a fundamental reason for the problem of poor quality work output is that there are ironically too many resources being poured into the sciences, which leads to waste and inefficiencies. There is a lack of discipline or direction because you are no longer worried about being resource constrained. There is no consequence of overmarketing what you are doing and producing work that is not thoroughly vetted. You have investigators who don’t read papers or don’t understand critical limitations. You lower the bar for graduate students and postdocs because you simply need to hire and can afford to be less selective.

In academia, you are rewarded for how much you can do, not how clear your thinking is. Hiring or tenure committees have benchmarks to hit and aren’t able to promote someone based on clarity of thought. For scientists, since the day to day work that is happening can be menial (ie. anyone can learn how to do it), what ends up being selected for are people with stamina and technical prowess but potentially not the ability to set research direction. In industry, time and resources are precious, and these higher order planning skills are valued. In other words, you need constraints in order to clarify thinking, prioritize direction, and ensure high quality output.

There are certain aspects of the work which are truly just difficult and unlike other industries. For example, science is a career where you can spend your whole life doing something wrong and no one would really know. It is hard to decide who to pay more because who knows what is most likely to work or whether someone has some insight that you personally just don’t understand. Nothing can ever be ‘finished’ and ideas can be continuously worked on with no end in sight.

However, what is clear to me today is that science at some point needs to contract (with some exceptions; things are always still fine at the top). People need time to think instead of constantly being caught up in the rat race of grants, papers, and prestige. My qualifying exam was essentially a marketing and communications exam rather than a test of whether I deeply understood concepts and could design studies thoughtfully. The recent shortage of postdocs is actually a good thing and will force people to prioritize and publish less papers. We need consolidation to work on high quality large scale projects. We can make compensation money based and give raises based on performance. The ivory tower can’t be a bubble that never pops; research dollars aren’t taking us as far as we used to, and we need to ask ourselves why.

Related reading: “Making every researcher seek grants is a broken model”

Published Jan 25, 2024

Harvard-MIT PhD Student