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Written by Andrew Neff

February 2019

Why We Need Theorists in Biomedical Research

Physics has pure theorists, why biomedical research should too


Your off-the-shelf modern scientist is many things; creative, energetic, brilliant, and at least for the biomedical researchers of the world, self-sufficient.  Ideas have to be formulated, and they have to be tested, no single individual gets to do just one or the other. Those who rebel, focusing on theory while neglecting or refusing to get their hands dirty in the lab, are often ridiculed as, well, not actually scientists.


Science’s method is well known, first you have an idea, then you test it - there’s no discovering new things without both theory and experimentation.  The self-sufficiency ethos says of course they’re linked, they ought to be - who better to come up with ideas than the person who’s doing the experiments, and vice-versa?  But from another perspective, this might be creating a situation without checks and balances.

A theory is only as good as the results that confirm it, and results are only as important as the theory behind it.  They build off each other, bolstering each others importance. And when individual labs or scientists are in charge of both having the ideas and testing them, there’s going to be the opportunity to use results to bolster theory, or theory to bolster results.  So, could the lack of distinction between theorist and experimentalist be limiting the range of discussion we’re having about science today?


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When ideas aren’t valued on their own, a set of incentives develops that encourages scientists to direct their attention inward, to the research they’re experimentally capable of handling, and forwards, towards a field they believe they can move... forward.  Staying focused, and being productive in the lab are both critical elements to developing a successful publication record, and eventually competing for grant funding.


But what about the value in looking outward?  Sure, focusing narrowly on your research can be good, being you’re the expert and all.  At the same time, you stand to gain when your particular research is highly regarded, which is very convenient when you’re the one doing the regarding.  From Sciences perspective, encouraging scientists to discuss issues that they’re not actively seeking recognition or funding for could be good for the sake of promoting impartiality.

And instead of ‘moving forward’, how about the value of identifying less-useful lines of research?  Imagine you have a research program that’s based on a particular theoretical framework. One day, you come across some information that suggests your research isn’t really so justified after all.  Professional ethics says speak the truth, be impartial, follow the facts wherever they lead. Human nature says it’s going to be very difficult and time consuming to reorient your labs priorities. There’s undeniable value in identifying areas of research that aren’t worthwhile, and it would be much easier for a disinterested third party to call attention to that gap.

Without outside forces weighing in, and without scientists spending time thinking about what’s not worth pursuing, structural communication incentives point overwhelmingly towards self-promotion.  In the most crude sense, this lack of separation causes personal and financial conflicts of interest that are everywhere in science.  The subjects that scientists talk about tend to be the same subjects that they are trying to get funding to do research on. It’s a clear conflict that’s easy to ignore because who wants to admit that their thinking might be biased by their grant-funding and paper-publishing ambitions?  Nobody who’s trying to get a paper accepted or grant funded, is who.

And so on the one hand, maybe scientists need to rise to the challenge, exercise some willpower and resist the temptation to skew public opinion towards self-glorification.  But heroic accountability is only a small piece inside of a cultural context where thinking, decoupled from experimentation, isn’t valued. Of course, coming from a scientist who, in the act of writing this, is currently thinking decoupled from experimentation, this is all horribly fraught with ego and commercial-profit driven conflict of interest as well.  But nonetheless, maybe there could be a place for theorists in biomedical research, which could be to provide a check on the overwhelming optimism and credulity that the existing system encourages.

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