In which I defend the birds-eye view

Lovely massive tree. But what about that small boy in the corner?

Is science about obsessing over one tiny daub of paint? Or is it about standing back and appreciating the entire picture?

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.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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2 Responses to In which I defend the birds-eye view

  1. vivien dwyer says:

    So true. It’s why I’m an artist rather than a scientist (or anything else really ). I love expanding boundaries for others especially when they are lost in too much detail.

  2. BioBrains says:

    You are right that that’s how it should be (although it can be difficult to stop yourself in time – often you don’t realise you’re falling down a rabbit hole until you hit the ground).

    I think the current system is promoting safe and linear science. Trainees can only stay for x number of years on fixed contracts and they need y output to be competitive with others. I also see my trainees compare themselves to others who get results faster doing bitesize science than they do on more challenging questions/projects. The scientific excitement is not always a morale booster for many of them, I find.
    Funding is scarce and increasingly heavily monitored (I have a grant where the agency comes to visit me regularly to ask about why I didn’t hit my milestones yet). It’s not my kind of science but going against the system is tough and not always sustainable. The fun/creative stuff needs to be added on the side when work pressure is high enough to begin with.

    So I agree with you, but I think the system is working against us. Of course we are and have created the system too.

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