Bioethics Blogs

The Risks of Risk-Averse Biomedical Research Funding

A recent NPR piece tells the story of two successful biomedical academic research scientists who left science entirely to pursue other interests. Ian Glomski abandoned a career in microbiology at the University of Virginia to start a liquor distillery. And Randen Patterson, a physiologist, left U.C. Davis to become the owner and manager of a grocery store. According to Glomski and Patterson, these radical career moves resulted from the current tight funding situation for biomedical research. As Glomski explained, the scarce resources have created a situation where he could find funding only for very conservative and incremental research. Meanwhile, the more exciting projects that truly sparked his interest were deemed too risky and went unfunded. The result, for Glomski:

You’re focusing basically on one idea you already have and making it as presentable as possible. You’re not spending time making new ideas. And it’s making new ideas, for me personally, that I found rewarding. That’s what my passion was about.

So he moved on.

The stories of these two men—though they may seem unusual—are likely not mere flukes. In fact, they align very well with what psychology tells us about what motivates people to successfully undertake creative pursuits in the arts and sciences.

First, we know that for successful creative work, autonomy is paramount. Individuals who have more independence to choose to work on what interests them not only show more motivation in their work, but also produce more creative outcomes. Academic scientists in particular might place an especially high premium on autonomy—empirical research shows that many of these scientists are willing to give up the higher salaries that private industry affords in exchange for the relative autonomy an academic career provides.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.