04 October 2010

Why cure disease?

ResearchBlogging.org“Why aren’t you working harder? Don’t you know there are still people dying from cancer?!” That’s the thrust of a sanctimonious, self-righteous editorial by one Scott Kern. See below for other commentaries on it.

You know, even soldiers fighting actual wars where there is immediate and imminent danger to their comrades are given leave.

Kern has lost the plot; he’s forgotten that the main reason we want to cure cancer is so that people can lead fulfilling lives. If you Kern’s argument to its logical extreme, nobody should be doing anything besides work, ever.

As Robin Williams put it in Dead Poet’s Society:

And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

To paraphrase from another piece of pop culture, “(I)f we behave like them, then what is the point in winning?”

Related posts


Kern SE. 2010. Where’s the passion? Cancer Biology & Therapy 10(7): 655-657. DOI: 10.4161/cbt.10.7.12994


Mike Mike said...

Even if one's goal were ultimately productivity (for the sake of argument,) it turns out that people can't be productive, especially in difficult jobs, if they don't have breaks. Recreation is necessary so that we are mentally healthy enough to do our work, especially when that work takes focus, concentration, and care.

Mike Mike said...

After reading his article again (and more closely,) I want to offer a different opinion. The people he's talking about (biomedical researchers) have chosen a field that exists in order to help people. This is urgent work, as is all humanitarian work. His argument can stand (albeit shakily) because he does not take it to its logical extreme - he does not state that everybody should work all the time. He's not talking about all work or workers, just work that is explicitly humanitarian and workers who profess to do their work for humanitarian ends. It's very easy to make excuses to one's self in the vein of "I've done enough" or "I've done well enough" when, with such open-ended problems, there is never enough done. It is this tendency that he laments. His point isn't that the right balance between dedication to such work and recreation is 100% work and 0% recreation - he's just saying that the culture in some labs has misplaced this balance too far to the side of treating those jobs exclusively as ways to earn a paycheck rather than ways to help people.

Sure, it's sentimental, a bit harsh, and smacks of "back-in-my-day" stories, but I think it's a good ideal to keep in mind.

Zen Faulkes said...

Mike Mike: Thanks for your comments on Kern's argument.

Now here's a question, and I do not mean it a sarcastic snark. Does the research enterprise suffer because people treat it as just a job? Should only people who are drawn to the humanitarian desire to cure cancer work as cancer researchers?

Since I'm here, I'll point out that Janet Stamwedel has another post on this topic.

Twitter users might want to check out the #k3rn3d tag.

Mike Mike said...

The research establishment benefits from having more workers, almost regardless of how they view the job. It is possible to get more done with more workers. For many of them, they don't need to treat it as a noble quest (for example, animal care workers are very important in labs, but are often wage laborers with little connection to the research interests of the labs.)

However, the research establishment suffers when its leaders (in this case, the PIs and lab directors working at the institute) do not consider their work to be, first and foremost, a humanitarian effort (and ascribe it the corresponding urgency.) These people are the ones who determine the ideology and attitudes of organizations that conduct research as a whole, and so it's important for them to be ideologically invested in their work. In addition, there are relatively few of them, and so (unlike with "lower" lab jobs, like lab techs, animal care workers, and lab assistants) a PI who treats their research as "just a job" is likely to displace one who might be more personally invested in their research and thus more motivated to fervently pursue it (which one would think would lead to greater productivity, though this is an empirical question that I don't have the answer to.)

That said, it's hard to say what the PI's that Kern is talking about are actually doing on weekends and evenings. It might be just as likely that they're doing other things to advance their research as it is that they're just chilling out.