At the poster session of a recent meeting, I was chatting with a engaging young woman about her research (the particulars have been changed to obscure this person’s identity). It was all very impressive, but in one of those oblique flashes that sometimes hit, I saw a link to another related disease. I suggested that she consider exploring it. “If your protein is involved in that other pathway,” I said, “it could tell you a lot about your own.”
The woman smiled sadly. “I actually wanted to do that, but my boss said no.”
“Because we’re funded to work on [disease X], and looking at [related disease Y] would be off-topic. And that was that.”
Off-topic? To be clear, we were talking about slightly different manifestations of a very similar problem. I don’t want to be too specific in this particular case, but it would be like being taken to task for having a look at lung infection caused by strep-induced pneumonia in immunocompromised patients instead of in healthy people. Any similarities or differences you uncovered would tell you something about what’s going on in healthy patients, and could provide the missing link to understanding a piece of biology that might otherwise remain elusive.
But boss-man said no.
I find this mindset utterly baffling, but I must say that I’ve seen quite a lot of it over the years. It never fails to surprise me how people with no imagination can end up in the sciences. And if they can mine the seams of the obvious efficiently enough, they can even be marginally successful.
Science was never meant to penned into a small field of simple grass. It should respect no fences, grazing freely across the pastures, taking in a hundred types of wildflower, moving along paths trampled by foxes, shot through with mice, exploding with meadowlarks. It absolutely should stray into the next farmer’s field to nibble at the lush green carrot-tops. And yes, it will occasionally fall down a rabbit hole or two.
But if you, as a scientist, aren’t pushing outside your comfort zone, you are unlikely ever to discover anything truly groundbreaking.