Scientific Research: A Ponzi Scheme.

Screenshot_3_10_13_6_28_PMRecently, a friend and colleague blurted out, “Man, academic scientific research is a Ponzi scheme”.  At first I laughed at this but soon I realized his point of view.  My friend is primarily a clinician.  His training and interest in understanding the bases of disease and hope of discovering new therapeutic targets had brought him in laboratory research.

He quickly realized that there was a chasm between his lofty ideals of studying a biological phenomenon and his mentor’s single-minded interest in using his data for fetching money.   My friend’s enthusiasm and motivation that had been his strength in conquering the daily grind of the lab work and failure of experiments were suddenly overcome by despair.  He is a good scientist who carefully designs and plans his experiments and is resourceful and skilled to execute them well.  Unfortunately, he decided to return to the clinic without completing his research project.

Under ordinary situations I would not have thought much about his return to clinics. Such departures are not uncommon among physician scientists who do not like the long drawn battle of laboratory scientists against leaking gels, failing western blots, suboptimal reagents, and a long dark tunnel of uncertainty without any glimmer of light at the end.  Many do not see how abstract concepts of basic research could ever be translated into clinically relevant knowledge.  But our guy has the smarts.

Like a painful sliver his analogy of scientific research as a Ponzi scheme stuck in my head.  Of course, I am not immune to the widely publicized Bernie Merdoff’s case of financial bungling.   I googled Ponzi scheme to find that…

In a Ponzi scheme potential investors are wooed with promises of unusually large returns, usually attributed to the investment manager’s savvy, skill or some other secret sauce. (Reference:  The New York Times)

Scientific research indeed is like a Ponzi scheme.  A very small number of people (established investigators) entice a very large number of young people (investor) for a dream of a very large profit (Nobel Prize, glory, publication, publicity, creative satisfaction etc).  To keep the scheme running, they do tell the ‘fine prints’ that not everyone gets there, the harder you work the larger the reward.  Cynics call it ‘rat-race’.  But I think Ponzi scheme is a better description.

Of course, once in a while from this large pool of investors a few are selected to receive the big profit that was promised to all.  They are given awards, positions and attention.  Usually these are the mediocre lot. The reason for this favor is that these mediocre are either unsure about their abilities or are too sure about it.  They stay indebted to the generosity of the ‘system’ and to display their loyalty to the system, they propagate the same scheme.  This is the pyramid scheme taken to extreme.

Does this mean that there are no smart people in scientific research?  On the contrary, there is a large number of smart people who keep pushing the leading edge further and beyond.  They are the pioneers with true passion for advancing the knowledge.  They are the ones who are genuinely interested in understanding nature of things.  They are not wheeler-dealers who relentlessly try to fill round holes of their hypotheses with square pegs of data.

I am not sure whether my friend will ever return to laboratory research but with a simple remark he gave me a different point of view.  We all thrive on such diverse points of view in research and I think that he did shift my paradigm.


4 thoughts on “Scientific Research: A Ponzi Scheme.

  1. This post sounded all too familiar to me. As a graduate student, I often felt that there was a huge disconnect between what I told people I was doing (curing cancer) and what I was actually doing (changing the pH of a solution in such a way that was never going to occur in a cell to see how a part of a protein would react).

  2. Very true.
    I must say research seems to be something like business of mirage. They make you see green pastures over there. But closer you get, far it appears. You hardly get what you see.

  3. The problem is systemic and the incentives are driven by money-based capitol and pardigm stagnation. The educational system itself produces these drones who have learned to recite whatever they are told and this is reinforced by good grades and these drones have learned the wrong things after all and it is self-perpetuating. Rethinking paradigms is risky and the outcome involves uncertainty, so the culture is one of risk aversion and not of inovative concepts because the money base prohibits it.

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