What Motivates Scientists? Evidence From Cancer Research

A friend of mine who worked in a biology lab said the grad students and post-docs joked about the clinical-relevance statements included at the end of papers and grant proposals: how the research would help cure cancer, retard aging, and so on. It was nonsense, they knew, but had to be included to help funding agencies justify their spending.

Principal investigators never say such things. Are they wiser than grad students and post-docs? Fortunately for the rest of us, actions speak louder than words. An action — actually, a lack of action — that suggests that P.I.’s know their research has little connection to curing cancer, etc., is 50 years of  widespread indifference by cancer researchers to the possibility that their research uses a mislabeled cell line. For example, you think you are studying breast cancer cells but you are actually studying melanoma cells. A recent WSJ article says that the problem was brought to the attention of cancer researchers in 1966 but they have been “slow” to do anything about it:

University of Washington scientist Stanley Gartler warned about the practice [of using mislabelled cells] in 1966. He had developed a pioneering technique using genetic markers that would distinguish one person’s cells from another. Using the process, he tested 20 of the most widely used cancer cell lines of the era. He found 18 of the lines weren’t unique: They were Ms. Lacks’ cervical cancer. . . . A decade after publication of his findings Gartler attended a conference and introduced himself to a scientist. Dr. Gartler recalled the man told him, “‘I heard your talk on contamination. I didn’t believe what you said then and I don’t believe what you said now.’ “

What he meant was: I ignored what you said. Yet it costs only $200 to check your cell line. Fifty-plus years later, mislabeled cell lines remain a big problem. “Cell repositories in the U.S., U.K., Germany and Japan have estimated that 18% to 36% of cancer cell lines are incorrectly identified,” says the article. This indicates considerable indifference to the possibility of mislabeling.

If you truly wanted to cure breast cancer, would you spend $200 (out of a grant that might be $100,000/year) to make sure you were using a relevant cell line? Of course. If you were trying to cure your daughter’s breast cancer or your mother’s melanoma, would you make absolutely sure you were using the most relevant cell line? Of course. I conclude that a large fraction of cancer researchers care little about the practical value of their research.

I believe that one reason my personal science found new solutions to common problems (obesity, insomnia, etc.) is that my overwhelming goal was to find something of practical value. I wasn’t trying to publish papers, impress my colleagues, renew a grant, win awards, and so on. No doubt many cancer researchers want to cure cancer. But this 50-year-and-not-over chapter in the history of their field suggests that many of them have other more powerful motivations that conflict with curing cancer.

Thanks to Hal Pashler. Hal’s work on “voodoo neuroscience” is another instance where the guilty parties, I believe, knew they might be doing something wrong but didn’t care.

4 Replies to “What Motivates Scientists? Evidence From Cancer Research”

  1. That Wall Street Journal article was really one of the most astounding things I’ve read in recent memory. Here’s another quote that stood out for me:

    “Screaming and shouting, it doesn’t do any good. No one takes any notice for reasons I don’t understand,” said John Masters, a professor of experimental pathology at University College London, UCL. “The whole ethos of science is to strive for the truth and produce a balanced argument about the evidence. Yet, all this crap is being produced.”


    Seth: A curious quote. I don’t think it’s controversial that scientists have motivations other than “truth”. To say “the whole ethos of science is to strive for truth” is to ignore those other motivations: status, job security, attention, community, and so on.

  2. It will change when Fox News demands gigantic cutbacks in research spending because it’s all based on fraud like this.

    A little drum-banging, some Limbaugh mocking, a Bill O’Reilly rant or two, and the grants will be suspended across the board as the GSA tries to clear its name by launching the biggest fraud investgation in recent memory.

    These can’t-be-bothered researchers will start screaming like they’re being burned alive.

    They don’t seem to realize that they are standing on the precipice.

  3. More misleading research, this time supporting the use of drugs to treat repetitive behaviors in autism:

    pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/04/17/peds.2011-3285.abstract

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