From my first statistics class in High School I learned the importance of p<0.05, but what happens if my data is not significant. What if other people do not think my data is as interesting or as groundbreaking because it fails some statistical test?
I recently learned that no matter how intelligent, perseverant or hard working you are science will always be about good experimental design and a bit of luck. Can you imagine the frustration of getting an unwanted protein in your Western blot over and over again? As you keep thinking it might be a contaminant, but by accident you discover one of the most important proteins of cell membranes. And this is exactly what happened to Agre who discovered aquaporin channels and won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2003.Surely, if your research was important or relevant enough to win a Nobel Prize grant readers will fund you. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Last week I was fortunate enough to hear a story that showed some of the realities about the “publish or perish” mentality. Dr. Roger Y. Tsien along with Drs. Osamu Shimomura and MartinChalfie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008 for their discovery of green fluorescent protein (GFP). What the official story fails to mention is that their work was based on the previous work of Douglas Prasher who was forced to quit science because his interest in glowing jellyfish was not interesting or significant enough to be funded. All the Nobel Laureates recognized the significant contribution of Douglas Prasher to the discovery and use of GFP and were reluctant to accept the award without proper recognition to all the contributors. Sadly, since he no longer had a lab he was not considered for the award and he remains unrecognized for his accomplishments.
What I learned from this story was that no discovery is too small or insignificant, and even though our research is often driven by what grant reviewers consider important or significant we must share our findings one way or another. Who knows maybe your failed experiment can help win a Nobel Prize.
On a happy note, Douglas Prasher was able to return to his scientific research in June 2010 after Dr. Tsien and Chalfie publicly acknowledged and advocated his significant contribution to this important discovery.