The Passion of the Scientist

There have been a few responses (updated: Janet has one also, as does Mike) to this chuckleheaded essay chiding, well, basically anyone who isn't in the lab 60+ hours every week about how they lack passion about their research, and are essentially letting sick people die because they think they have the "right" to lives outside of the lab.

I wish I were kidding, but I'm sadly not. In sum, Professor Kern (a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins) is obsessed with how many people (or few, by his observation) are around in the lab on weekends, and how this represents the death of American science as we know it (OK, I may have extrapolated a bit, but still). A choice quote:

During the survey period, off-site laypersons offer comments on my observations. “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? Should I note that examining other measures of passion, such as breadth of reading and fund of knowledge, may raise the same concern and that “time” is likely only a surrogate measure? Should I note that productive scientists with adorable family lives may have “earned” their positions rather than acquiring them as a “right”? Which of the other professions can adopt a country-club mentality, restricting their activities largely to a 35–40 hour week? Don’t people with families have a right to be police? Lawyers? Astronauts? Entrepreneurs?

Though he uses the strawman figure of "country club hours" and "35-40 hours/week," he does go on to note in the next paragraph that surveys (but not his own!) have found that scientists work more along the lines of 50 hours/week or more, but summarily dismisses it.

I'm cranky about this story because I *have* been in the lab 50+ hours a week over the past 2 weeks--something which is rare for me. It has nothing to do with my lack of passion, but simply the fact that I do carry out a lot of work off-site and don't feel I need someone like Dr. Kern looking over my shoulder and clocking my hours as a measure of my "passion" for the job and the science.

I'm cranky because Progeny was sick yesterday, but I had no one else to take care of samples that needed to be tended to, and so Progeny and I went in to work with a sleeping bag, book, and a bottle of 7-Up and some saltines to nap on my office floor while I took care of my samples as quickly as I could.

I'm cranky because being in the lab 50+ hours a week does mean that there's hardly anything left of me for my family, and because this hits women harder than men and there are already enough damn hurdles that we face that we don't need more set up by Dr. Kern and his ilk, and I don't need to have my passion doubted or measured by the hours of facetime I put in.

I'm cranky because no matter how good the science is or how much time you spend doing it and how much you sacrifice or how much you put up with, some asshole will still dismiss your science and talk about how you're a "witch" behind your back with competing colleagues.

I'm cranky because the examples of "passionate" scientists he uses are, of course, both men.

And I'm cranky because I still have several weeks of 50+ hours in the lab left to go before this winds down and I can get back to writing papers and grants--probably off-site--to keep my lab going. But I guess that crafting lit reviews and writing paper discussion sections just doesn't show my passion for the subject like being in the lab at 3PM on a Sunday would, right, Dr. Kern?

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  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Drug Monkey, Rebecca Montague. Rebecca Montague said: The Passion of the Scientist @Chemjobber [...]

  • Pascale says:

    Dr. Kern's essay has likely convinced some smart student somewhere that science cannot be pursued if you want to have a full, rounded life. That student just made plans to do something else with their intellectual gifts. That student's insight might have provided the key to curing some form of cancer someday, but now they won't.

  • Dorothea says:

    Give 'im hell. I've recommended this post for the Geek Feminism blog.

  • rebecca says:

    Pascale, I have no doubt. Hell, it's exactly this toxic attitude that turns *me* off science. And thanks, Dorothea.

  • Kevin Z says:

    Me too! My MS advisor told me in lab meeting in front of everyone that I had "not obviously been bitten by the science bug" and grad students are indeed expected to put in 12-16 hours a day in to make the necessary sacrifices. When I told him we were having a second child he merely said "well I'm glad you have more time on your hands than I do" and walked out my door.

    It was at that point I decided to stop my PhD, write up a 3 chapter, 180 page masters thesis and get a job as a tech somewhere, where I can leave my job at the end of the day and enjoy some life before I die. Thankfully, after much encouragement from last employers and being very careful in my searching, I am back doing a PhD with an understanding, enthusiastic advisor. He doesn't even mind my blogging 🙂

  • Rebecca says:

    Wow, that's terrible. I hope I lead by example in my lab, showing my trainees that the science is important (and we do sometimes have shit to do on weekends, or evenings, etc.), but that it's equally critical to have a life outside of the lab.

  • Rebecca says:

    I should note the first part is terrible--the second part with your return to school & new advisor is definitely a good thing!

  • Zuska says:

    Dr. Kern needs a sound head thumping with the Table Leg of Justice. And a good thorough shoe puking.

    How many ailing patients had to be sacrificed to his selfish desire to take time off work and write a column about insufficiently dedicated scientists? One chokes back a sob at the very thought.

    What a douchebag.

    • scicurious says:

      Aww, Zuska, you totally beat me to it. I hope the many cancer patients out there know that Kern took time off from finding a cure to write this article.

  • Arlenna says:

    Right on, right on. This article makes me want to barf. Sorry cancer patients, sorry I don't care about you enough to not go on maternity leave, sorry I don't care about you enough to leave my daughter with whoever when she's sick and can't go to daycare, while I finish and get my grant submitted (oh wait, douchebag, I did get my grant finished and submitted while all this was happening, even though I wasn't in the lab/office while it happened). F-you dude.

  • What a fucken slimeball.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I am an obsessive model airplane enthusiast. I gave it up when I started PhD and took it back up when I made Full Professor (coincident with my oldest son having an interest.) I abandoned model airplanes again when I got some research going which involved a certain amount of out of country travel. I started up with models again when I became department chair, and continued into retirement. My point is that I enjoyed being a professor, particularly the research, enough to give up something which I really enjoy and like to spend time with. I did raise a family, etc. , and none of my research has direct application on curing cancer.

  • Chemjobber says:

    Nice post and thanks for linking -- glad I'm not the only one who thought he was a little over the top.

  • ginger says:

    I wrote a very long screed elsewhere about the fallacy that a passion for science obviates the need for pay commensurate with experience/education, safe working conditions and reasonable working hours. What it boiled down to was that I heard the exact same argument used by management to try to break nursing unions. "You just don't care about the patients, do you? You're just lazy and selfish and in it for the money." Feh.

    Also, whatever happened to the idea of working smart instead of working long and hard? At the very least, I think it's much easier to comment about how hard other people are working than to work hard or smart yourself.

  • [...] feel as though I should begin my letter to you with a confession.  When I first read your now infamous opinion piece in Cancer Biology and Therapy called “Where’s the Passion?“, I was [...]

  • [...] feel as though I should begin my letter to you with a confession.  When I first read your now infamous opinion piece in Cancer Biology and Therapy called “Where’s the Passion?“, I was [...]

  • Maitri says:

    Advisors like Kern are why I opted for a second master's instead of a PhD and have taken corporate jobs since. Guess what, I get more done here.

    Also, as a telecommuter friend just pointed out, "In this century, a physical presence in the office is not required to be working. Most scientists are probably at home on VPN writing grant proposals."

  • Jamie says:

    I do find it interesting that out of everyone who has quoted this, no one has responded to the examples of jobs in which you are expected to work those hours and people regularly do. Especially since people regularly compare scientists workloads to those professions.