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Episode 59 — The Importance Of Questioning The Status Quo

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#59 — “It’s always been done that way.” Maybe that works for double-entry accounting (which hasn’t changed in a thousand years), but not in the lab. We humans may love the security of things we can count on, things like protocols and management, axioms and HR. But you are a scientist, and curiosity and discovery define your world. So buckle up: we are going after the status quo.

Also check There Is No Such Thing As A comfort Zone

Hosted by Bitesize Bio’s own Dr. Nick Oswald featuring Kenneth Vogt of Vera Claritas.

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This is an automated transcript and may not be 100% accurate.

Intro/outro (00:04):
This is The Happy Scientist podcast. Each episode is designed to make you more focused, more productive, and more satisfied in the lab. You can find us online bitesizebio.com/happyscientist. Your hosts are Kenneth Vogt, founder of the executive coaching firm, Vera Claritas, and Dr. Nick Oswald, PhD bioscientist and founder Bitesize Bio.

Kenneth Vogt (00:34):
Well, welcome back to The Happy Scientist. And once again, I’m joined by Dr. Laura Grassie which is a change from Nick, but, you will hear Nick again next week. And I think he heard him last week, you know, it’s constantly changing environment today. We’re gonna talk about a subject that was actually suggested by Laura, and that is the importance of questioning the status quo. Well, we did here, we changed the status quo. Have, have somebody else signed to talk about it. So that’s what we’re gonna jump into to right now. Now I know there’s you know, there’s a lot of structure in the scientific world because it’s a big world. And, and so there are some things that are, that are sacrosanct that, that, well, you know, it’s just always been done that way, or this is the way we do it now. And, you know, it’s, it’s a change from the past, but it’s the new way. So it, it got me wondering about just the notion of status quo as, as a concept. So, so Laura, what do you think, what what’s defined status quo? What does that actually mean?

Laura Grassie (01:49):
Yeah, that’s a, a difficult question to start with, but I think it’s an important one. Uh I think it’s anything that is just what is, is done. Like you said anything that’s just from the way you, in a scientific perspective from the way you do experiments to the way you write and get grants to the way they hire people to the way you know, reagents are set out in the lab, it could be anything, just the idea of how anything is done right now. Is what I would say is called the status quo.

Kenneth Vogt (02:22):
Yeah. I was thinking about a couple of different ways to approach it. Cause at the beginning, I, I was thinking it’s just the status quo. Like it’s a singular thing, but it’s not, it could, it could have to do with things like how management hierarchy works. It could be scientific protocols, it could be the hours that your laboratory operates. And when you’re expected to be, there could be financial considerations, like you mentioned about grant writing and that kind of thing could be about social considerations, how you, how you work together with other people. And it could be about what are acceptable risks and, and the ethics of, of what you’re doing in science. So, you know, there’s a, there’s a lot of things there that if they are chiseled in granted, you really are shackled. You know, you’re, you’re held to, to not just a certain standard, but a certain operating environment. And if you can’t flex at all, that’s gonna, that’s gonna certainly impact the, the kind of discovery you can do. And the, the kind of experiments you might even undergo undertake, you know? So all that being said, there’s all this structure out there in the world, isn’t it there for a good reason? Isn’t that why there’s a status quo?

Laura Grassie (03:50):
Yes and no. And I think there’s, there’s good places for, for things to be rigorous status quo when we do them the way we do them. And I think science is not necessarily one of those places. I think actually often the, the reason the status quo exists is because people are scared and they want security and it, you know, we do it this way. We know it worked, why change it? And you know, you know, you’re gonna get results that way, but, you know, I’d argue that actually, if you look back to when science was done before, when it was, you know, people who had a lot of money that did it as a hobby, that there was less of a status quo, it was more people did things the way they did, because they had that freedom. They weren’t relying on a paycheck. They weren’t relying on the fact that they need to get the publications in order to have a job, you know, or progress to the PI or whatever it is that they wanna do. You know, they, they didn’t need that safety.

Kenneth Vogt (04:50):
Sure. Well, in to my mind bioscience is, is a little bit special in the realm of science in because you’re dealing with living things. And so that kind of adds a layer of responsibility that, that doesn’t exist if you’re a, a physicist, you know, or you’re an astronomer, you know but still questioning the status quo can be quite risky. So, you know, I, I, and in, I was just thinking about that in terms of the stories that everybody knows, you know, Galileo questioned how the how the sun did not in fact revolve around the earth. And boy, did he get a lot of trouble for that? You know, so, so, but here, here in the modern world, you know, we’re, we’re past a lot of that, but still what happens if you question the status quo, how does that work out?

Laura Grassie (05:49):
I think that depends on what kind of status quo you are you are questioning, but I think there’s always gonna be repercussions and not always positive ones. And I think one of the issues we have is that there’s quite often negative repercussions for questioning the status quo. If that is, for example, you’re in a lab, you’re a new person in the lab, and you wanna do something differently. You wanna do a technique in a different way. You might come up with a lot of, you know, conflict there with maybe someone who is an established postdoc or an established PI. There’s always done it that way. It’s always get results of why change it that, you know, you could have that, or I, if we’re talking about a much wider concept of questioning the status quo and I think the, the bigger, the status quo, you’re trying to question the potentially bigger hurdles you’ll face is, you know, for example, if you are trying to say, you know, actually question the status quo in terms of scientific findings and say, you know, we’ve always thought that X works this way, but actually I think it’s different, like you say with Galileo and that it’s, that’s when you can come up with really big hurdles and potentially career destroying, or if you look at it more positively career making

Kenneth Vogt (06:57):
Mm-Hmm well, yeah, that’s, that’s it. And, and I, for those of us who are, who sit outside of the scientific realm, you know, we see laboratories as these very scary, dangerous places where if you don’t do it right, you know, you’re gonna blow up three blocks, city blocks of lab, you know, but I, I suspect that’s probably not usually what you’re up against.

Laura Grassie (07:19):
Yeah. Obviously there’s certain status quo for like handling chemicals and, and things like that. Or like you said, because biology deals with living things, for example if you are doing clinical trial work or working on animals, there are rigorous protocols in place, and that has to be followed, but that still doesn’t mean that you don’t have to question those protocols in the way it’s done and have discussions with people because that’s, that’s how science progresses.

Kenneth Vogt (07:45):
Sure. And, you know, obviously there’s, some things are call them settled science, like there’s things that are settled law, and, you know, you, we, we hang onto those things because they have been discussed. And, and, you know, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. On the other hand, every once in a while you gotta go, you know what there’s a bigger world than that existed when this was first decided that we know things now that weren’t known before and it’s worth having the discussion again. And I don’t know. I mean, as you mentioned, you know, especially if you’re, if you’re doing things like working on animals you know, some people are very upset about that from an ethical standpoint, you know, that, that added a new comp new layer, a new component, but it’s, you know, people used to live a much more agricultural life and they, and they had animals in their life and they knew about that and they knew, they knew about call it good husbandry. And nowadays it’s like the only animals we encounter are pets, you know? So we may look at things a little differently, but, but that being said, you know, are, are we never gonna question anything again? I mean, how, how can, how can anybody sign up for that, that no, we’ve already decided everything it’s all done. You know?

Laura Grassie (09:18):
I think if you, if you see that way, if you, if your way of looking at the world is, is there are no more questions that need asking, or, you know, the status quo doesn’t need changing. Then I think perhaps science is not quite the right career. And I, I, yeah. I firmly believe like I remember I started learning about Socrates and that one of the things that really struck me was his teachings of question everything. And I think that really is fundamental to any scientific research. And actually anyone should be doing this, but science especially is question everything. Even if it’s, you’re not actually going up to a supervisor and questioning it in your head, question it and look up the literature and think other ways it might be that actually it is perfectly fine the way it is. And there isn’t a better way to do it, but questioning it could reveal something interesting. Sure.

Kenneth Vogt (10:10):
Well, yeah. And we’re not talking about questioning with cynicism, we’re talking about questioning with curiosity, and as you say, you know, sometimes you question something and, you know, I, I don’t see a better way right now. Doesn’t mean there, isn’t a better way though. It just means you don’t see one yet. And that, that allows you the freedom then to say, you know what perhaps I’ll question this again in the future, you know.

Laura Grassie (10:36):
Yeah. And I think it’s a really good distinction that you make there between questioning with curiosity and cynicism. I think that’s a really important distinction. They shouldn’t be questioning to trip people over or to be negative or to cast out on people. It should be a genuine curiosity and a genuine desire to do things better.

Kenneth Vogt (10:56):
Right? Exactly. So one of the things that I was thinking about how one of the benefits of the status quo is it provides a certain amount of security. It’s a foundation that we are building on. So if we’re no, if we’re no longer going to use the status quo as the base of our, of our security, where are we gonna get that security from in the future?

Laura Grassie (11:21):
Yeah, that’s difficult. And there’s an element of you don’t want to be too comfortable. You don’t make good discoveries or, you know, you’ve, you’ve gotta take a risk in order to, to get somewhere. If you just spend your life being comfortable and in a safety zone you, you, you are really quite limited in what you’re gonna be able to do. That being said I think maybe my perspective is that you can get that security by a mental shift in terms of, you know, thinking actually the, that, that security, that safe place of not questioning the status quo is more dangerous and potentially less secure than questioning it because it’s, you know, and obviously you’ve gotta be careful of like survivor bias and all that kind of stuff. But if you look at some of the, the great scientists, the, the people Nobel prize winners, the people that are publishing regularly in nature, they are not people that sit in the comfort zone. They’re not people that sit with the status quo. They are the ones asking the questions

Kenneth Vogt (12:25):
In the show notes. So I’ll have a link to an article that’s entitled. There’s no such thing as a comfort zone, that’ll be, might be worth someone looking at. I may find it interesting. It’s a short read. This is something this somewhat unique about science. I’m not saying it’s only exists in science, but there’s a lot of jobs out there. A lot of careers out there where discovery is just not a part of the game, you know, it’s, it’s things stay the same and, and they need to stay the same, but that’s not necessarily true here in science. That being said, though it can be quite destabilizing to someone individually, you know? So, so what, what if you’re just not comfortable rocking the boat? You know, what, if you don’t wanna be the person questioning well, how do you, how do you manage that?

Laura Grassie (13:18):
I think you start small. You don’t have to jump in there and suddenly one day going from being someone that just goes with the flow to someone that questions, everything, but just start questioning some things, little things, you know, oh, where do we get our agents from? Is there a better supply? Can we save some money here? Things that are kind of like low risk questions. Yeah. And it, you know, it, see the proof is in the pudding then does it work out actually, was there a positive outcome to you questioning that status quo and build slowly on that? And what you might find is the more you do it, the more comfortable you get with it, and you, you suddenly find yourself used from now questioning, you know, asking questions that you never thought you would be brave enough to ask and it paying big rewards.

Kenneth Vogt (14:04):
Sure. Now that being said, sometimes you might, you might question the status quo and you will discern that, you know, what the status quo is just right. It, it, it’s the best thing we’ve got so far and that’s not a loss there’s no, no, that in fact stabilizes the, that position, it, it, you know, it, it solidifies that, you know what we are on the right track and, and that’s not a bad thing. And, and if we there’s something in your world that is just not allowed to be questioned, that’s scary. You know, we have to be able to say, wait a minute, why do I have to turn on the lights in the lab? Well, because you do like to see by golly, I do like to see, I think I should turn the lights on, you know, we, we, we don’t wanna blow that off. Like how dare you question whether or not we turn on the lights, you know, you never know what will be uncovered in a question. And sometimes it maybe doesn’t help, didn’t help anything, but yourself, maybe you learned like, you know what time for me to be a little more humble and realize that some smart people went before me and they figured a few things out, you know? And, and that’s good.

Laura Grassie (15:25):
Yeah. I agree. Because yeah, there’s probably gonna be lots of times where actually the way we do it or what was known is still right. But again, it’s about not taking offense. If you questioning it, doesn’t, you know, it, it’s not trying to Trump people saying, oh, I know better. Cause I’m questioning you. It’s about genuinely wanting to find out if this is the best way or there is another way. And like you say that it’s okay and perfectly fine if the way the status quo is good. And I think it’s important for there to be an environment where people feel comfortable questioning that. And it’s ironically, although science is about questioning, I would say there’s a lot about the scientific environment that doesn’t like questioning. You know, if it’s, it’s not necessarily seen as good to question someone who’s more senior than you, who’s got more publications than you. And that we really need to foster this environment. That actually, as long as it’s coming from a genuine place of curiosity, that questioning is good and you should be open to people, questioning you as well as you questioning of us.

Kenneth Vogt (16:33):
Exactly. Yeah. I was thinking about that. It’s not just about you rocking the boat. Maybe your boat’s being rocked. You know, somebody else is, is, is questioning your status quo. And we need to be open to that too. And you know, it doesn’t mean we have to lay down, you know, like, oh, well I must be wrong cause I’m being questioned. Like, no, you can still support the position that you’ve taken, but do it, do it in dialogue rather than competing monologues, you know, have to have discussion, be open to new data and open to new viewpoints on that data. You know, sometimes the data hasn’t changed, but the understanding of it has, you know, so that’s something I’ve talked about in the past where, you know, there’s a difference between data and information. Data is just data. Information is data that’s been made useful in some fashion, but it could be, it can be made useful in, in different directions. And we’ve all seen that happen. You know, you have something where you should like, let’s just take a simple example, something experiment where you’ve, let’s say you’re, there are two factors, temperature and pH. Well, if you only focus on one of those factors, you know, the other one can go wild. Well you realize, you know what, in a different environment, maybe, maybe the temperature can be lower if the pH is higher, maybe, you know, it’s worth asking, it’s worth looking at it. So, you know, now I I’m talking way over my head here. So,

Kenneth Vogt (18:08):
But you know, the, the point being is that sometimes it’s just the perspective we’re taking our perspective likes a certain status quo. But if you change your perspective, this, the status quo may, may stop even making sense, let alone being the best choice.

Laura Grassie (18:30):
Yeah, no, I would agree with that. And I think, you know, with the whole, your boat getting rocked, I think, you know, you should not be afraid when people question you and encourage it as well and be open to it and see it as a way of improving yourself and double checking that your thoughts and ways of doing things are actually correct.

Kenneth Vogt (18:47):
Sure. All right. Well, those are most of the thoughts I had about status quo, but I’ll let Laura have the final word here. If you have anything else to add

Laura Grassie (18:58):
I think, I think we’ve kind of covered everything, but in summary, I think it should, people should be comfortable questioning the status quo and we should really try and foster an entire environment of people being able to do that, no matter where they are in the hierarchy or where they are in their scientific careers, it should be okay and acceptable for that to happen.

Kenneth Vogt (19:20):
I love it. Well, and hopefully many good things will come outta that. All right. Well then on that note, well, I thank you again Laura, for joining me for, for this episode of The Happy Scientist, then perhaps we’ll see you in the future.

Nick Oswald (19:36):
Thank you for listening to The Happy Scientist podcast, helping you to become a happier, healthier, and more productive scientist to get more Happy Scientist podcast episodes and all of our downloadables. Please go to bitesizebio.com/thehappyscientist, all one word. And in particular, you might want to spend some time on episodes. One to nine, where we talk about the foundational principles of human needs, core mindsets and charisma factors, which we refer to in many episodes. You can also hook up with us on Facebook at facebook.com/thehappyscientistpodcast, all one to get latest episodes and additional material. We hope to see you there.

Intro/outro (20:24):
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