The Sunk Cost Bias: Science is Addictive

It has been well-publicised that the current financial crisis and subsequent spending cuts have hit science and technology research badly in the UK. The reported ‘brain drain‘ has seen many researchers relocate abroad in search of jobs. At the same time, sociologists alert us to the lack of women in the higher echelons of science, the supposed glass ceiling where women are excluded from the higher paid jobs or are not able to earn as much as men in the same roles. (During a particularly dark point in my PhD, a male friend told me I should finish my PhD because I, as a woman, needed all the help I could get.) Across science disciplines, funding sources are diminishing and consequently the number of grants successfully funded have dropped significantly. Many universities in recent years have invited applications for voluntary redundancies. At UCL, where I studied for my PhD, I watched a Professor, who I’d known since the first year of my BSc leave with the redundancy pay, then take a job as a technician in a fellow academic’s lab. Half of the technicians in our lab have PhDs, but when a highly skilled Professor takes this kind of position, it evokes all kinds of discussion about how one might get into scientific research at the lower levels.

Getting a job in science is difficult enough, but once in the job, there’s the fear of not being able to get the next grant, of not getting your last three years’ work published, or the possibility that a rival lab is working on the same topic as yourself, and may well be ready to publish before you. This fear means that, after science, the next most common topic of conversation in the lab concerns alternate careers. You can learn a lot about a person by having this conversation; the answers are rarely expected. At the last census, we had a potential horse-riding teacher, a fish-and-chip shop owner and a secondary school maths teacher among our number, alongside the expected pharmaceutical industry-types, science communication and publishing fields.

My curiosity lies not in how these people can be persuaded to stay in science, but why don’t they leave, considering their plans appear so well-honed and a scientific career is so poorly paid and unpredictable?

An answer occurred to me yesterday morning while I was reading a short article on brainwashing in Saturday’s Guardian Weekend magazine. Now bear with me… no, I don’t believe an underground government conspiracy is being carried out to keep susceptible individuals in science. The article discussed why followers remain in Scientology. The article cites ones reason as the ‘Sunk Cost Bias’, “Scientology costs money – hundreds of thousands of dollars, reportedly, to reach the top rung. And once you’ve invested cash in something, it feels ‘wasteful’ to stop doing so.” And it occurred to me that this is like a career in science.

A scientific career is costly in terms of study and sacrifice. After leaving art school, I managed to get a job working as a Lab Technician with only one science A-level (Physics), although now this position requires at least a bachelor’s degree in science (or more, as discussed above). This also applies to the next rung on the ladder, Research Assistant, which additionally requires some previous research experience. To progress any higher in science a PhD is essential, unless an applicant can demonstrate extensive laboratory research experience or clinical training.

Next, to get onto a PhD programme requires outstanding grades, prior research experience, dedication and, to some extent, the ability to successfully argue oneself onto the course. I’m sorry to say I’ve known people to get onto very prestigious programmes just because they’ve known one of the organisers, or done their undergraduate research with the head of department. Who you know is important in science. Once on the programme you may swear you’ll never work weekends or late nights, but before you know it you’ll justify popping into the lab on a Saturday morning because it’ll make the next week that much easier. Expect to work late into the evenings regularly because experiments never go as planned. I dread to think how many of my friendships have gone by the wayside because I had to keep cancelling meet-ups, or really never had the time to arrange the meeting in the first place.

With each late night, early morning, missed date, weekend sacrificed for an experiment, so your payment to science builds up. In time, these sacrifices begin to be rewarded: a beautiful western blot, a first-author paper, a poster prize, a sought-after post-doc position. This is what turns science into an addiction. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve said they’ll leave their job “once the next paper gets accepted”. Tragically, I’ve known two people work for free until their papers got published.

Seeking the story is also incredibly addictive. I’ve had ideas about some cardiovascular proteins since my PhD. To explore their connections at the time was outside the scope of the project – neither time nor resources are unlimited, even if you do cut out sleeping and eating. If I could show that my theory was correct, it would be amazing – revolutionary even. I’ve been lucky enough over the past year to have sourced some reagents to explore my questions, but the experiments don’t support my hypothesis. However, an idea is so difficult to let go. I come back to the ideas time and time again, thinking about them from a different angle, collecting references as I read about related subjects in the literature. The experiments continue to disappoint me.

This is why we stay in science, enduring the unsociable working hours, job insecurity and low pay. Because if we were to give up now, those lost friends or missed family parties would have been for nothing. And the feeling of being the first person in the history of the universe to discover why two proteins talk to one another is completely unfathomable.

Mouse Cardiac Fibroblasts (2013): my latest addiction
Mouse Cardiac Fibroblasts (2013): one of my latest addictions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *