Boiling frogs: a troubling time in biomedical research

“The truth appears to be that if the heating be sufficiently gradual, no reflex movements will be produced even in the normal frog; if it be more rapid, yet take place at such a rate as to be fairly called ‘gradual’, it will not secure the repose of the normal frog under any circumstances” –William Thomas Sedgwick, 1888

A longstanding myth holds that if you very slowly raise the temperature of water in which a frog is resting, you’ll eventually boil him to death without his first hopping out of the pot.  It’s a strange metaphor, but it’s a widely useful one.  I remember hearing it used in church lessons about the dangers of slowly changing social norms.  For obvious reasons, it has been applied to the perils of climate change.  Today, though, I’d like to talk about its application to biomedical research.

A recent publication raised a large number of issues about current problems in biomedical research.  The paper drew many eyes because its authors included a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, the founding chair of the Systems Biology department at Harvard Medical School, the president of Princeton University, and the director of the National Cancer Institute at NIH.  In the language of Washington, D.C., these were insiders!

Their paper was titled “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws.”  You can follow the link above to read it in its entirety (it’s only five pages), but here’s the capsule summary:

  1. Every year, our universities produce more biomedical Ph.D.s than our universities and businesses are able to hire into permanent positions; the number of researchers grows faster than the funding to support them.
  2. Forcing scientists to compete more aggressively for money promotes bad behavior such as making exaggerated claims to achieve “high impact” publication and focusing on grant writing more than on conducting research itself.
  3. Science is best conducted when researchers have time to think creatively, but current scientists face considerable time pressures for regulatory requirements and peer review of manuscripts and grant proposals.
  4. A dearth of opportunities for young researchers has led to many being compelled to stay indefinitely in positions intended for training (for example, remaining a “post-doc” for more than five years).
  5. Some high-profile institutions have increasingly relied upon “soft-money” positions, paying high faculty salaries on the understanding that most of it will be paid through federal grants rather than by the institution itself.

From there, the authors move to several recommendations for addressing these imbalances.  In my view, the most effective remedies proposed by these authors were the ones least likely to take effect.  I would suggest you read the paper to form your own view, though.

I created this blog because I have felt the pressures described by these authors. At first, I simply thought that I was being overly sensitive.  Other faculty at my institution seemed to be having a jolly time at their jobs, so what was wrong with me?  These pressures are quite real, though, and after a series of medical problems during the last five years (most are the sort that one might reasonably attribute to continual stress), I have realized that I need to make some changes.

This frog is one that is prepared to leap before cooking!

A frog in a pot

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2 thoughts on “Boiling frogs: a troubling time in biomedical research

  1. Rachel

    Just saw a lecture that mentioned Shirley Tilghman yesterday; the speaker was Paula Stephan, and her book (“How Economics Shapes Sciences”) on some of these same issues is supposed to be pretty good.

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    Reply
  2. Pingback: On a mission from god? | Picking Up The Tabb

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