More Recent Comments

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Keith Yamamoto on Taking Risks

Here (below) is my old friend, Keith Yamamoto, talking about taking risks in science. Keith and I were graduate students in Bruce Alberts' lab over 40 years ago. That's him on the left in the photo. I'm the one looking up and the third former graduate student is Glenn Herrick.

Keith and I learned a lot about science from our former mentor. I learned a lot from Keith; for example, he taught me that it is more important to print in your notebook than to use cursive writing. I've been printing ever since.

Keith also helped me learn that it's sometimes important to fight for a cause even if you know you're going to lose. (He was county coordinator for the George McGovern presidential campaign in 1972.1)

The take-home message in this video is that good scientists need to take risks. It's one of those "motherhood" kinds of statements that every scientist will support but few actually do it. It saddens me to say that today we live in a culture where mundane, data-collecting, science is often more successful than risky science (e.g. ENCODE). Risk entails the possibility of failure and even though you might learn from failure [Bruce Alberts on Learning from Failure], it won't do you much good if you don't get a job or you lose your grant.

So I disagree with Keith when he says that we should encourage risk-taking in young scientists. Some of the best scientists I know took risks and and the work didn't pan out. They couldn't get any papers published and they lost their grants. They were cut out of the system in favor of scientists who could guarantee successful results in their grant proposals. The fact that the results were boring and did nothing to advance our knowledge, wasn't important.

I advise young scientists, post-docs, and graduate students to always have a "safe" project. Don't put all your eggs in the risky science basket. It makes me sad to give that advice.

1. For those of you who weren't born in 1972, Nixon won that campaign and McGovern won only 17 electoral votes (Massachusetts and Washington, D.C).


  1. I was going to post pretty much the same thing you said here in the other post, but then I read this one.

    I am all for taking risks, I would want to be able to take risks. But this was much more possible back in the days when the system was in expansion mode. Now when you have paylines down to 5% in some NIH institutes, it's a very different situation...

    It's easy to say that from the position these people are in.

  2. I think your advice is good, but not "sad". I always tell my graduate students to work on both hard problems and easy problems.

    Hard problems, because if nobody ever works on them they will never get solved, and it could well be you who solves it. Just understand that while the payoff is potentially very high, the expected value may not be.

    Easy problems, because one can get very discouraged working only on hard problems. Solving an easier problem boosts your self-confidence and gives you something to show for your time, and who knows? Maybe an easier problem will lead in a cool and fruitful direction you hadn't anticipated.

  3. Creationists in science stuff take risks and today its documented how they are punished or hurt in some way for saying evolution is wrong and other ideas more right.
    I'm sure creationist students are told to keep quiet or risk, possibly, problems in getting ahead in class or work.
    I can't quote the story but some bigwig in the Harper gov't was denied being science leader, or something, because he was some species of creationist.
    So a punishment is a lesson to be careful about independence and risk in science.

    I guess serious scientific investigation should be done on ones time and maybe mack to secret labs.
    perhaps science grants are too much big business and not worthy of the peoples money.
    Being so much money brings more control from the gov't.
    I heard they giver grants for studying snail sex!! Risky or not it seems wrong.

  4. On the a minor topic, is the print vs script just an issue of legibility, or is there some other reason?