Ray Kroc, the guy who made McDonald’s what it is, figured out how to crank out burgers, fries, and drinks like no one else before or, really, since.  Billions and billions served.  There’s no doubt about the productivity of McDonald’s.  However, I don’t think any of us would describe the quality of the food at Mickey D’s as paradigm-shifting.  It’s passable, but nothing more.  It’s certainly not what anyone would describe as good for you.  And if your order gets screwed up, or your buns are stale, or whatever, well, what did you expect for a few bucks?

Contrast that with Gordon Ramsay.  Despite expletive-filled rants to turn out beef Wellington at an ever more rapid clip, he’s not serving anywhere close to billions.  But he has no intention to do so.  He’s aiming for the highest quality cuisine that money can buy, and you better block out your whole evening and bring your plastic because it’s gonna cost you time and money.  (A 3-course spin at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay will set you back $170-$220 per person, if you stick to tap water.)  Credit where credit is due, the guy can claim a combined total of 22 Michelin stars over the course of his career thus far.  I’m told they don’t hand those out like candy.

You’d never go to McDonald’s expecting Ramsay quality chow.  Likewise, you wouldn’t complain if you went to Ramsay’s 3-Michelin-star restaurant and your food didn’t arrive in 10 minutes.  In each setting, you expect to trade quality for production speed.  It’s just how that sort of thing works.

So, why doesn’t that hold in science?  When I submitted my K08 the first time, I got the following comment (full disclosure, it was listed as a strength, not a weakness, though I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse):

“Dr. Fessel is currently completing his 4th year as a postdoc and in this time has published 4 papers, with one as first author in a pulmonary specialized journal. Lists 24 total publications. Recent publications provided in supplementary materials increases enthusiasm for productivity.”

A couple of things.  First, this was a K08, meaning that that first “postdoc” year was 100% clinical, and each of years 2 and 3 had 3 months of full-time ICU service.  Second, I was feeling pretty good about my CV until I got this comment back.  The only reason this reviewer was okay with my productivity was the 2 or 3 additional papers I listed as supplementary materials after the grants was submitted?!

The grant didn’t get funded that first time, but thankfully I was able to up my game and get it on the resubmission.

For those of you out there saying, “Well, I’m sure what the reviewer really didn’t like was your Approach” or whatever, spare me.  Yes, I get that they’ll find SOMEthing to gripe about.  But the message is consistently that one needs to do more, more, more.  More papers, and in higher impact journals.  More grants with bigger budgets.  The demands seem to be for Gordon Ramsay quality at Ray Kroc speed, output, and increasingly, prices.

When your job depends on it, you’ll do your damnedest to make it so.  And there are those who succeed, or seem to.  They crank out papers and grants like factories.

One wonders if we should sit quietly and just accept that that’s where the bar is set.  Maybe?  The problem is that even this apparent “success” comes at a cost.  And no, I don’t mean kids who never see their parents, or the PI who’s a crappy teacher and an even crappier mentor, or the young superstar who burns out mentally, spiritually, or physically, though those are very real costs.  I’m talking about other hidden costs that I think are just as real.  Here’s one example.

Let’s say you want to create a brand-new dish, something that’s a work of art to the eye, a seduction to the nose, a religious epiphany to the palate, something that will be recalled for years to come.  Do you approach Ray Kroc, or Gordon Ramsay?  Why?  If it’s my anniversary, I’m talking to Gordo.  I need someone who not only has the available tools and talent in his or her group, but whose own culinary skills surpass those of all others.  In this example, that’s Ramsay.

Let me share with you some actual things I’ve heard said by very successful PIs:

“He wrote a grant to study the serotonin gene, and got it funded.”

“They’re planning to measure aldosterone out of their proteomics data.”

“You just put the plate in the machine and data comes out.”

There are others, but hopefully you get the idea.

Yes, we all know that the folks in the lab break into a cold sweat if the PI threatens to pick up a pipette.  But, don’t we expect the PI to be the expert when it comes to experiment planning, data analysis, and interpretation of results?  Now , yes, you might say that the above examples were probably just off-the-cuff remarks that would never survive more careful scrutiny on the part of the speaker or the involved parties.  Personally, I’m not so sure.

I think doing careful science requires a lot of attention and a fair bit of time.  I also think it’s possible to “blag” (look it up) your way through a bit, or to receive the benefit of the doubt.  Problem is, the devil is in the details, and at a time when we’re increasingly worried about rigor and reproducibility, this hidden cost of Ray Kroc science might be a bigger deal than we realize.

Others have written around this topic more eloquently than I have done.  Publish houses of brick instead of mansions of strawTrain scientists to be expert thinkers, not mere technicians.  But if that’s what we really want, then I think we need to look hard at what is rewarded.

Are we rewarding careful science, the world-class chef who is committed to the highest quality dish and the experience of the diner?  Or are we rewarding “fast food” science, throughput and productivity at the expense of true quality?  We lament what fast food has done to our world’s health.  I’m increasingly worried about what the pace and quality of “fast food” science might be doing to our scientific legacy.

*Author’s Notes:  First, big, big ups to Fighty Squirrel for her expert editing and suggestions on how to be more awesomer!  Second, the extended chef metaphor grew out of an interesting observation that a large number of grad school applicants would go into culinary arts if science were not an option.  Me, I’d give stage acting and stand-up comedy a serious try (I know, don’t quit my day job).

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1 Comment

I agree with you 100%. Well said. I just read the reviews from an unfunded NRSA application from a PhD student who just passed his Qualifying Exam 6 months ago. One reviewer listed as a negative the fact that this student had “no publications”. Really?! In his first year in the lab?! The student, mentor, institutional environment were all listed as outstanding and the approach was not heavily criticized, although there is always room for improvement on that. I think when reviewers say silly things like this to young scientists it places an incorrect empahsis on just getting your name on papers. This type of behavior will likely result in padding authorships to get students and postdocs “publications” to help them get funding. The attitude toward funding trainees to help them succedd in research needs to be on the TRAINING.

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