Saturday, April 27, 2013

Keith Yamamoto on Taking Risks

Here (below) is my old friend, Keith Yamamoto, talking about taking risks in science. Keith and I were graduate students in Bruce Alberts' lab over 40 years ago. That's him on the left in the photo. I'm the one looking up and the third former graduate student is Glenn Herrick.

Keith and I learned a lot about science from our former mentor. I learned a lot from Keith; for example, he taught me that it is more important to print in your notebook than to use cursive writing. I've been printing ever since.

Keith also helped me learn that it's sometimes important to fight for a cause even if you know you're going to lose. (He was county coordinator for the George McGovern presidential campaign in 1972.1)

The take-home message in this video is that good scientists need to take risks. It's one of those "motherhood" kinds of statements that every scientist will support but few actually do it. It saddens me to say that today we live in a culture where mundane, data-collecting, science is often more successful than risky science (e.g. ENCODE). Risk entails the possibility of failure and even though you might learn from failure [Bruce Alberts on Learning from Failure], it won't do you much good if you don't get a job or you lose your grant.

So I disagree with Keith when he says that we should encourage risk-taking in young scientists. Some of the best scientists I know took risks and and the work didn't pan out. They couldn't get any papers published and they lost their grants. They were cut out of the system in favor of scientists who could guarantee successful results in their grant proposals. The fact that the results were boring and did nothing to advance our knowledge, wasn't important.

I advise young scientists, post-docs, and graduate students to always have a "safe" project. Don't put all your eggs in the risky science basket. It makes me sad to give that advice.

1. For those of you who weren't born in 1972, Nixon won that campaign and McGovern won only 17 electoral votes (Massachusetts and Washington, D.C).