Taking risks in chemistry

I just realized that there is something in common between chemical science and economics. Surprised? Hear me out. I will name two important concepts: risk management and exit strategy.

Risk management. When I discuss chemistry ideas with students who are new to research, I often hear questions such as “Do you think this idea will work?”. It takes time to realize that this question has no place in research. This question is irrelevant because nobody has a crystal ball. Very few ideas actually work. The only relevant question is: “Is this idea worth the risk?”. Students who are passionate about science get this really well and are driven to work hard once they realize that the return on their time/effort could be substantial.

Exit strategy. Once we commit to pursuing interesting, yet risky ideas in the lab, we encounter another parallel with economics. I refer to having an “exit strategy”, or abandoning your project because your efforts are best spent elsewhere. In my view, acquiring a good exit strategy is very difficult and I honestly cannot pretend that I have mastered this myself. When do you say that a given research project needs to be stopped? Yet, this knowledge is critical to any research undertaking. I will provide an example that has been articulated by Richard Nisbett, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan (http://www-personal.umich.edu/~nisbett/):

An aging hospital needs to be replaced. Detailed cost estimates suggest that it would be as expensive to remodel this old hospital as to demolish it and build a new one. The proponents of remodelling say that the original hospital was very expensive to build and that it would be wasteful to simply reduce it to rubble. On the other hand, the proponents of building the new hospital say that it would inevitably be more modern. Which path is wiser – remodel the old hospital or build a new one? If you are of the opinion that the old hospital should be remodeled, you have fallen into the “sunk-cost trap” shorthand abstraction (SHA) known to economists. The money spent on the old hospital is irrelevant – it’s sunk – and has no bearing on the present choice. To draw a parallel to research, I submit that this is one of the most difficult lessons to learn when running a lab – how to have an exit strategy and know when to stop pouring resources into a given area. We need to trust our instincts and not fall into the “sunk-cost trap”.

One thought on “Taking risks in chemistry

  1. Pingback: Amphoteros – A Blogging Professor | Chemtips

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