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The Black Hole

Reducing medical (science) waste: Thinking before doing…


I was sitting down with a group of scientists following a football/soccer game the other day and dropped a bomb into the conversation by asking if people thought cancer research got too much money.  Nobody, myself included, disputed the obvious need for funding cancer research as a leading cause of death, but what we did have differing opinions on was how much money was spent in labs that doesn’t yield useful information.

Broadly speaking, I would classify these into two categories:

  1. The price of discovery:  Scientific research often explores the unknown and in order to move something into the known, you have to try new things.  New things often do not work
  2. The price of stupidity:  Some people refuse to think and plan before undertaking experiments

While the price of discovery is an acceptable waste in the quest for new treatments and knowledge, the price of stupidity should not be tolerated.  The opinion difference at the table was how much fell into the former and how much the latter.  I maintained that the latter was far more prevalent than people chose to accept, and while I only have my own experiences to go on, I have witnessed many egregious examples of resource wastage.  Many additional scientific advances could be made with current resource levels if we could curb the amount of money being thrown away on such experiments. ((I do not want to give the impression that Canada invests enough into research, because there is certainly a need to invest more money into the “knowledge economy”, I’m merely suggesting that we can get even more bang for the few bucks that do exist))

Some of the most obvious wastage is detailed below:

Tools that will never be used – There are two things that really drive me nuts 1) Buying a piece of equipment at the end of a grant when you either don’t need it or already have one and 2) Buying unnecessary or unnecessarily large amounts of reagents (antibodies, chemicals, proteins, etc).  The first is really bothersome because everyone seems to have the “use it or lose it” philosophy that makes them spend every last penny.  In some respects, I agree, but can somebody please tell me what is wrong with giving money back to a granting agency or charity (or asking to extend the time of the grant with leftover monies) – it stands to reason that entire other labs could be funded if some of this money went back to agencies and if you’ve ever been “oh so close” to getting funded, consider this as one of the reasons you didn’t make the cut-off. At a minimum, I would challenge laboratories across the world to figure out how to reduce the initial ordering of tools that will be under-utilized and to also attempt to find a home for things that aren’t being used.  Finally, maybe somebody will come up with an incentive for giving money back to a funding agency if it will not be used – increased funding in the next cycle?  a cheque for some % of the funds for non-restricted spending in the lab?

Fundamentally flawed experiments – there are mistakes in any line of work, but the “mistakes” that are the worst are the ones that could have been prevented by simply thinking before doing.  Many experiments in medical science are long and expensive – that is a reality – but that shouldn’t encourage us to be lazy about the thinking behind experimental design. Many experiments get binned because of these poor choices and could have easily been prevented with discussion, reading, and planning.  One of the toughest lessons I learned in my PhD was that being “productive” did not equate “doing experiments”.  In fact, if anything, the relationship is almost non-existent with many PhDs and postdocs slaving away doing experiments all year with little to no return on investment of time.  Often a single paper, conference, or interaction can save you months of experiments by introducing a new technique or learning from somebody else’s mistake.  Further to this, some of my own best thinking moments for scientific experiments have been in a kayak in the middle of beautiful British Columbia – not while carrying out experiments in the lab.

Environmentally Unsustainable Practices – The amount of plastic I have seen consumed and thrown away in labs sometimes makes me feel like not even bothering to recycle at home.  Understanding the need for plastics is one thing (single use for patient samples, cheaper than other materials, etc), but the volumes of plastics used in medical science laboratories is truly enormous.  The University of Melbourne has a very strong campus sustainability program which has a specific section for laboratory sustainability and all labs should at least consider reusable items, non-toxic items (e.g.: bleach alternatives), and being smarter about storage and sharing between lab members and other labs.

Using new technologies just because –  core facilities are a blessing and a curse.  On one hand, it centralizes resources and expertise and makes things cheaper and easier for everyone in the building.  On the other hand, it makes an attractive playground for trying things “just because you can”.  I will not lie to you – one of the reasons I came to Cambridge was to have access to the resources that would allow me to (hopefully!) complete top level research without a cap on resources, however, it has really shocked me to see throngs of postdocs and PhD students simply take their project and throw every new toy/technology at it until it yields something usable (read publishable).  This is not the way to train scientists and will come back to bite the field as a whole when these people go off to form their own groups or work in industry and do not know how to design good experiments but are simply experts at trial and error.

Finally, I have gained an increasing disdain for the “big journals” and their need for huge amounts of data as if the only research worth publishing needs to be from several hundred thousand dollars worth of equipment and reagents (not to mention the fact that these results often end up in supplementary tables that hardly get viewed) – I have the niggling suspicion that this is a “rich keeping the rich rich” scheme at play, but that’s probably another blog posting.  For now, it is critical to remember that novel ideas are the fuel that will drive new technologies and advancement in science and good ideas and the experiments that support them should be published actively and happily in leading journals even if they are achieved with minimal resources.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. SB / March 26, 2011 at 18:52

    What a timely post. We were discussing papers at lab meeting yesterday and I got excited about a 1998 Blood article that used RT-PCR as the only technique to show something very cool. The overall consensus was that the same study would not stand a chance of being published in a respectable journal today without at least one super sexy ‘omics era technique. It’s too bad – my take is that elegant and carefully thought-out experiments have led to some of the best science out there.
    The issue of environmental unsustainability makes me think about quitting science research on an almost daily basis. I suspect that the impact of the disposable plastics we use is dwarfed by all the hidden environmental costs that go into making reagents. Thoreau comes to mind, “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it”. For some of these things, e.g. purified antibodies, the cost per ul is truly staggering.
    I find it humbling to think of science research as one of many endeavors with the potential to advance human and environmental health. Knowing that $$$ spent on research is money not spent on interventions far more likely to have an immediate impact, is to me a powerful motivator to do the absolute best job I can in the lab.