Birthday MeditationMarch 18th, 2011
I recently watched Ken Burns’ documentary on the Lewis and Clark expedition, and it was truly excellent. Perhaps the thing that I found most interesting from the film was an entry that expedition leader Merriweather Lewis made in his journal on the occasion of his 31st birthday:
This day I completed my thirty first year, and conceived that I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this Sublunary world. I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the hapiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended. but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions and at least indeavour to promote those two primary objects of human existance, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestoed on me; or in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.
I turned 31 this month, and over the course of the past year, I’ve felt many of the same sentiments as Lewis. If I dropped dead tomorrow, there is no question in my mind that I would have had a net negative impact on the world. I’ve essentially been in school for my entire life, chewing through a variety of taxpayer money in the form of (free) public education, competitive scholarships & fellowships, and grant money. There’s also the many man-hours of time I’ve sapped from the workforce by way of the training provided by my parents, teachers, and mentors. In contrast, my contributions to the world (e.g., teaching and a smattering of research papers) have been fairly insignificant. My body of published research has little chance of helping anyone besides, perhaps, a couple of random souls in the future who are (more than likely) also working on projects of little importance to society at large.
Perhaps this waste and my unease can be written off as unavoidable costs of growing up, but the funny thing is that—unless one actively puts his mind to doing so—it seems pretty difficult to break out of such a cycle. I mean, look around you. How much of academic research truly excites you? What percentage of papers in today’s journals will be especially helpful for more than twenty people, ever? How many will go completely uncited—or even unread? Is this what you want to spend your life doing?
I’ve asked this question before, but I’ll ask it again: What is the greatest achievement in chemistry of the past 10 years? 20 years? 30 years? Genome sequencing techniques, maybe? Gleevec? If that’s all we can bring to the table over such a long period, we’re in trouble. Lack of production—not in terms of insipid papers, but in terms of compelling advances that benefit society—is going to make it increasingly difficult to justify our current level of taxpayer funding. If steep budget cuts can happen to NASA’s human spaceflight program, they sure as hell can happen to chemistry. We’ll probably find this out if we keep spinning our wheels.
Is there hope on the horizon? I don’t know. It seems like most of the cattle coming out of the barn are heading right down the same path as those before them. Many areas of modern research have been tapped almost dry scientifically, but people continue to line up to fight over the scraps. The academic system of chemistry has become some weird game where there are all of these expectations of what you should be doing. These expectations keep people busy doing a whole lot of nothing, like publishing a bunch of boring/worthless papers to get more money so they can publish more boring/worthless papers.
What is the point of getting an academic job—or any job in research, for that matter—if you are not going to work on problems that stand to provide significant benefits to mankind? Part of me understands why washed up professors continue to work on overfarmed land—they were there first. What I can’t understand is how freshly minted assistant professors can start out working on crap projects. Why bother? I assume it’s simply because these people want the status of being a professor, so perhaps hiring committees are to blame?
Or maybe it’s the funding agencies? I am not advocating cutting back on the funding of scientific research, but you can count me among the people who believe that we need to modify the way we fund this research. I’d like to see fewer people rewarded for “playing the game” and producing a whole lot of insipid garbage rather than those who have got bold new ideas, even if they are associated with decreased chances of “success”.
Industry has its own problems. Pharma is neck-deep in an area of diminishing returns for how it discovers drugs, and the industry is shedding weight like a cancer patient. Of course, not everyone seems to care. Grad students continue to pile into total synthesis labs, and our flagship news weekly runs pieces titled “Chemistry: Alive and Well”. Chemistry is alive, but is it really well?
I’m not as concerned that we’re in the doldrums as I am that no one seems especially motivated to get out. But who am I kidding? I’m sure as hell not going to change the broken system. People have been saying things like “pharma is broken” and “total synthesis is dead” for years, but nothing has stopped their slow march into oblivion. The only thing I can control is what I do, and I’d prefer not to spend the rest of my life polishing turds.
Getting back to Merriweather Lewis…the Corps of Discovery’s expedition would go down in history as one of the greatest feats of human exploration and of immense national importance to his fledgling country. In taking such a grand risk, Lewis unquestionably achieved his goal of “advanc[ing] the information of the succeeding generation”. Unfortunately, he never reached his predicted lifespan of 62. Rather, Lewis put a bullet in his head at the ripe old age of 35.