This is my last workday of the year – I’ll be posting occasionally into the new year, but some of those will be recipes (as is traditional around here). If there’s any big scientific news, though, I’ll rouse myself and talk about it. Today I’m just heading into the lab to get things wrapped up, leave a few slow reactions sitting over the break, and leave myself notes about what I’m doing when I get back.
I’ve been trying to take my own advice this year and work on some hard problems, not that we necessarily have a lot of trivial ones in drug discovery. Even when I’m working on something that’s not up there at the edge, I try to keep my eyes open for results or ideas that might be relevant to bigger issues. That’s always the balance in doing scientific research – you have to keep your head down and pay attention to details, because they’re important, but you also have to look up and see where you are in the broader landscape, because that’s important, too. This year’s work, overall, has been good; I hope to have some publications on some of it to show what’s been going on. Overall, I’m sticking with the recommendation to work (when possible) on the hardest, most important problems available. I’ve always preferred projects that are in this category, anyway, for purely pragmatic reasons.
In drug research, when you work on something that everyone thinks is a sure thing, it’s nothing of the sort. We don’t have sure things. The projects that are seen as more “out there” are (in reality) not that much harder, if at all, than the ones that people are already mentally putting in the “bound to work” category. And when one of the so-called long shots actually works, everyone who helped it gets a share of glory, whereas if the sure thing delivers, well, not so much. It was going to work anyway, right? No matter who was on it? The only thing the can’t-miss project can do to surprise anyone is to miss, which it already has a better chance of doing than people are giving it credit for, and when it does wipe out, someone obviously has to be blamed. It was a sure thing! How could you have messed it up?
So I have a lot more sympathy for long-shot projects, and less trepidation about working on them. Everything’s a long shot – look at how many drugs actually get through. I look forward to another year of oddities, surprises, reversals (in both directions) and sudden insights (a few more of the latter would not come amiss). You probably know Isaac Asimov’s line about how the real sound of a scientific breakthrough isn’t a shout of “Eureka!” It’s someone, he said, looking down at a flask or printout and saying “Huh. That’s funny”. And he was right, although the downside is that we do a lot of that when it turns out not to be any kind of breakthrough at all. But I’d far rather have those moments than not. As I was telling some folks the other day, I’m pretty well ruined, by this point, for any job where I would know what was going to happen.
Bring on another year, then. I can’t fix the world or what’s wrong with it, but if things go well I can figure some things out that no one has figured out before. May our hypotheses turn out correct once in a while, may our error bars be small, and may our experiments reproduce and the stakes be as high as we can make them when they do.