An Open Letter To Dr. Kern

Oct 05 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

I'm sure by now many of you have seen the...interesting...article written by Dr. Kern in Cancer Biology and Therapy, berating cancer researchers for...*gasp*...working less than 80 hours a week when we haven't cured can cancer yet. Sci considered a truly vitriolic series of responses to this article*, but other people have been there before me, and have done a great job dissecting the article and why it is both not awesome and also very wrong.

Make sure you check out Sanitized for your Protection, Chemjobber, Adventures in Ethics and Science (1 and 2), Mike the Mad Biologist, Neurodojo, and Derek Lowe for a series of excellent takedowns.

As for me, I do hope that with time, an increased sense of perspective, and possibly some chocolate-related therapy, Dr. Kern will reconsider his extremely curmudgeonly remarks. I'm sorry that he felt the need to justify his own life choices by degrading those of his colleagues, and in the process, to add additional stress and worry to the next generation of scientists.

Grad students, post-docs, listen up. Not all PIs are like this. Some of them (perhaps even the majority), know that good science means living a life outside of the lab. They know you are dedicated to your work (in a professional or emotional capacity, or both), and that you need no encouragement to get the stuff done (most of the time). Most scientists I know drive themselves far harder than a boss could. And we are doing everything we can. But if Dr. Kern is going to insist on a 24/7 science army to cure cancer, he might need to reconsider. Or his army is going to be a lot smaller than he planned on. And I think we need every hand we can get, working when they can, and how they can, to cure cancer.

*Now would be the time to note that I made the "choice" not to become a cancer researcher, kind of like how he feels some other people made the "choice" to become unimportant things like firefighters instead. I'm not a cancer researcher, and that obviously means I've made a horrible choice in life, and have no passion. All those people with psychiatric diseases, after all, it's not like SUFFER or anything. It's not like they have a disturbingly high rate of SUICIDE or anything. It's not like they have to spend every suffering moment convincing people they actually HAVE a disease as opposed to a "life choice" or "willpower" problem. So, yeah, clearly, they aren't anywhere near as important as cancer. And this makes me a bad person for trying to find cures for them, when I COULD be curing something more "worthwhile". Like cancer. Yup, I have no passion for science, can you tell?

8 responses so far

  • DrJohn says:

    It may be that "not all PIs are like this," but be honest here - the overwhelming majority do expect 80+ hours per week. It may not be overtly stated, but that expectation has been obvious in every lab I've worked in or observed. Researchers who don't think like that don't become PIs - they're usually far too sane to do so.

  • john says:

    Alright I'm going to totally blast you here for bad reporting (okay you're not reporting; bad opining?). As a graduate student/soon-to-be postdoc I have a fair idea of the hours/wk thing everyone worries about. And, frankly, Dr. Kern is right. People that work 9:30-5 don't get a lot done. I mean, I'll grant that some are freakishly efficient, but most aren't, and it requires a large amount of time at work to be getting real science done.

    Now, you can argue that we don't get paid like our law/medical school brethren that do work 80 hours/wk, but judging by your scicuriosity I'm guessing this isn't a passing fancy and like me you chose this path because you enjoy it. So I'm not saying spend 12 hours/day 7days/week at work, but I think you well know that it oftentimes takes some 60 hour weeks to make things happen.

    Also, not once did he say anything about 80 hours/wk. It seems he gave a fair assessment of how a lot of people have a pretty 'laissez-faire' job afforded by first world America and don't care enough to work harder. While he's mostly just whining about it instead of providing solutions, I tend to agree that those working 35 hours/week are trending toward apathy.

    • scicurious says:

      I gotta disagree with you there, John. I do agree that 60 hour weeks is often necessary, but I think it's not necessary to spend them in the LAB. I do my best reading and writing when I am somewhere else, in fact, and not constantly having draws on my attention. So sure, maybe they are putting in 35 hours a week AT THE LAB, but what about at home?

      And while it's true that he said nothing about specific work hours, I find it VERY telling that he disparaged people's right to have a family. Or hobbies. Or do anything else besides curing cancer. I am indeed passionate about my work, as are many other scientists, and I think that we all often devote more time on the job than many other professions ANYWAY, without being made to feel like horrible people because we want to have lives, rather than working 24/7 on curing cancer. I think that what we need is more skilled people working on cancer and working 35-40 hour weeks, not a few people working themselves to death.

  • john says:

    Alright, we're sort of agreeing, I just think you're reading the article in a pretty negative light. The guy's a bit of a stick in the mud, but he's not outwardly saying 'get back in the lab you must be here 80 hours stop breeding'. Seems to me he's making a general point about lackadaisical research. I'd say 90% of people that show up 9-5 aren't getting very much done. Because 90% of them, like you and me, sit here and read blogs at work and go to long lunches and whatever. But I spend many more long hours outside of that 9-5 window making up for this.

    It's not like I think things are different in the commercial or industrial sector. Employees there are wasting their facilities and paychecks all the same. But it'd be nice to think that those that went down a career path like cancer research might be more inclined to put in that extra time (whereas those working for profit-mongering corporations may not).

    • scicurious says:

      Honestly, I CAN'T look at his letter in a positive light. Not when he says things like

      “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?"

      I mean, how else does one interpret that statement other than "stop breeding and start curing cancer"? It's one thing to complain about lackadasical research (and I've seen some of that), but entirely another to complain about people working a 40 hour work week. Why MUST we work 60-80 hours? Why can't we take on enough work to have us work 40 hours? What is it that makes us thing we MUST work more?

      I mean, yes, it'd be "ncie" to think that cancer researchers work 24/7. But I don't WANT them working 24/7. A 24/7 cancer researcher is an unhealthy one who gets no sleep. We wouldn't ask the same of doctors or firefighters, after all. I mean, it'd be "nice" to have doctors working 24/7, but you don't want a surgeon that's been awake three days. I would argue you also don't want a cancer researcher that's been awake three days. And I think that to demand more time than we already try to give to curing disease will only kill our passion for science and make us less careful.

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