There’s a disturbing trend happening in science: pansy-ass conservatism.

While the old saying goes “fortune favors the bold,” in the current scientific environment it might be modified to state:

Fortune favors the conservative incrementalist

Perceived threats mean conservative actions

As funding has tightened, reviewers have become more conservative with both manuscripts and grant proposals.

Reviewers perceive a greater threat from the competition, and perceive more scarcity of resources. They therefore are more likely to go into a review process with the attitude that if they support you, it’s less for them and their buddies.

This mindset is unfortunately more rampant than ever. While there was plenty of resistance even in the “old days” to new paradigms, that resistance is more obvious in how it plays out with manuscript reviews and even proposal reviews.

I have clients who struggle with being bold or creative in their work because doing so greatly increases the perceived likelihood of rejection. 1

So they “play the game” of being conservative and incremental to avoid rejection. This may get more papers and grants supported short-term, but it has a very different effect long-term.

You will not be seen as a true leader if you’re incremental

The long-term perception in any field as to whom are the leaders – and hence the ones whose grants and papers are more likely to be “rubber stamped” rather than shot down – has a lot to do with how bold they are earlier in their careers.

People get recognized as leaders for the big breakthroughs, not the little incremental bits that get published in LPU’s (least publishable units).

The inventors of new technologies or discoverers of fundamental new mechanisms get more citations, more talk invitations, and more/better job offers.

The pansy-ass conservatism presents a fundamental conundrum

Especially for junior faculty, it’s scary as hell to be bold in one’s manuscripts and proposals. It means you may receive a string of rejections before you hit the right timing and reviewers to score a win.

For this reason, many hold off from doing anything bold until they’re in a tenured position. Yet that may lead to it being “too late” to step up and be bold, for three reasons:

  1. Timidity becomes an addicting habit, much like a drug. One learns that it is “safer” to play small than to take any big risks, and gets small bits of reinforcement for that view from daily life. Whereas playing big only leads to positive reinforcement over the long-haul, but in the short term, is often quite the opposite. The power of habit is very hard to break when it comes to perceived “safety.”
  2. While many in a community will give junior researchers more credit for being conservative, if one is a mid-career or higher investigator who’s never created a “breakthrough,” it becomes easier and easier to get criticized for never really “doing anything.” (Even with a long list of LPU’s). So it becomes a game of diminishing returns.
  3. Being bold now sets you up for recognition many years from now. It may pay off anywhere from 2-5 years (or more) from now. So if you play conservatively now, what will you have to show for it in five years? Not much…

Playing a mixed game

The way I advocate for my clients is to find a balance between these two approaches.

On the one hand, there should be a few “safe” projects that play into the hands of the pansy-ass conservatism of the community. These are projects that may score short-term wins to keep the grant funds flowing and keep the biosketch sufficiently padded for tenure and promotion committees.

On the other hand, there should be a few “bold” projects that go in new and powerful directions. These are the “risky” projects that may not be fundable right now, but will lead to breakthroughs and funding years down the road.

Sometimes one must be quite creative to get the latter projects funded. More on that another time. I argue that those who forego such bold projects are playing the same dice with their career that 1-pack-a-day smokers play with their lungs. It may all turn out okay in the end, but the likelihood of it being so is substantially diminished.

Changing the culture

There’s something really sick with a scientific culture that promotes such a sense of pansy-ass conservatism. It is arguably one of the major impediments to science moving forward in big ways.

Why don’t we have real, substantial cures for cancer, heart disease, immune conditions, etc?

It is the pansy-ass conservatism. The community just won’t take risks at a sufficient level to lead to such breakthroughs.

Learn from Venture Capitalists

VC’s often have a simple but very effective investment strategy. They put money into, e.g. 10 companies, fully realizing that only 1 in 10 are likely to pay off. However, that 1 in 10 will often pay them off BIG time – far more than recovering their initial investments.

Imagine if we had used this approach with Cancer research, rather than the current approach.

Instead of all the incremental science that’s been done, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and others would have invested grants into far more risky projects. While each project would have a substantially higher probability of failure, for the 10% that yield fruit, the payoff may be the next big cancer treatment or heart therapy.

It’s actually quite amazing to contrast how wealthy investors do this compared to the level of conservative scrutiny that the regular review process places on scientists.

Some may argue that it’s to avoid fraud and data manipulation. While preventing malfeasance like that is a worthy goal, the facts clearly show that our peer review system does not stop such things from occurring.

Be kind to the bold

What can you do to change the system? There’s only one proven, long-term strategy to changing any system:

Start by changing yourself

If you want the system to support more bold, forward thinking research, then when you’re invited to review, don’t be such a conservative hard ass on your colleagues. Give them the benefit of the doubt more often, and support people who are willing to make big leaps rather than little, safe, incremental advances.

Along with that, be more willing to push forward your bold ideas. Set an example of someone who is willing to stand up for her ideas, rather than someone who shrinks back and avoids all possible criticism. In other words, be spine-full rather than spine-less.

This sets an example for your colleagues, but more importantly, for up-and-coming students and post docs. Just think about the message we send to them about what it means to be a scientist, when we’re playing a conservative, safe game? It’s not a good message.

This doesn’t countervene great grant writing

Since this blog has a lot about grant writing, you might find yourself wondering how this fits in with a message of writing better proposals.

The thing is, whether you’re going to write conservative proposals or more bold proposals, doing so effectively is still essential. And the more bold you choose to become, the more you have to learn about how to write a powerful and persuasive proposal.

So I hope you’ll continue developing your skills, while at the same time, favoring a bold, no-pansy ass approach in your research and your reviews. We’ll all be better off!

  1. I do not have statistics on the actual likelihood of rejection, however, anecdotally rejection does happen far more often with “bold” manuscripts and proposals.

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