Thursday, October 18, 2007

Fishing Expedition

A favorite phrase employed by some proposal reviewers is to accuse the PI’s of proposing a ‘fishing expedition’, meaning that the PI’s don’t really know what they are going to find but are hoping to find something. This is typically meant as a devastating negative comment: that is, one should have a more certain prediction of the outcome of the research or the research should not be done.

The term is used in the sense of casting about randomly and wildly in the hopes that something interesting will turn up, and isn’t meant as a comparison with people like some of my fishing relatives who have specialized equipment, technique, and knowledge, and who are reasonably certain of getting an interesting fish.

Some colleagues and I were discussing the ‘fishing expedition’ phrase recently, as we had all, at one time or another, received this comment in proposal reviews. We wondered why 'fishing expedition' had come to be used in such a negative way. Some (most?) research has a very uncertain outcome, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, as the pay off if something interesting is discovered is potentially great. [insert any one of a number of famous stories from the history of scientific discovery]. In many cases, even if the outcome is negative, something valuable is learned. These arguments, however, do not make for a very convincing proposal to a funding agency, even though we are all supposed to be doing transformative research these days.

In some cases, the phrase is accurately applied and highlights a potential problem with the research. Some proposals describe application of a huge array of poorly-described techniques that will be hurled at a problem in the hopes that something will emerge. This can make for a bad proposal.

I received the ‘fishing expedition’ comment in one of my proposal reviews in the past year. Although the overall proposed research was favorably reviewed, a reviewer singled out one of the more exploratory aspects of it for critical comment and recommendation that that part not be funded (because it was a fishing expedition). This kind of hedge trimming suggests that only the safest, most predictable work should be done, and any exploratory tangents should be lopped off early. In these cases, I typically try to find a way to do the exploratory part of the research anyway (e.g., using funds from small grants from my university).

A previous trend in proposal-trashing involved the phrase 'stamp collecting' -- i.e., mindlessly collecting and organizing data. What's the next hobby-related pejorative, once reviewers tire of 'fishing expedition'? My personal preference would be 'zorbing'. Any other suggestions?


Vodalus said...

I fully expect to hear of "zerg rushing" in 15 years as countless videogaming nerds turn into figures of authority. Mindless, repetitive research will probably be referred to as "grinding for papers." In fact, I might start a secret campaign to introduce that last term into parlance. We need ways of denigrating papers that are just overgrown methodology sections.

I can't wait for "he scooped me" to become "he ninja'd my work". (Yes, that is used as a verb and that is how it's used.)

EcoGeoFemme said...

I have zorbed! I'm not sure exactly what that would mean in science proposal terms, but I am sure it would be caustic. I might try slipping that in a converstion: "Sounds like a zorb to me. That won't get funded." or, "who funded this zorbish proposal?"

I understand why a "fishing expedition" may be not worth funding, but isn't the point of doing research that one does not know the outcome? If you knew, you wouldn't need to do the experiment.

Anonymous said...

I work at a national laboratory and the favorite pejorative of the production side of the house involves a metaphor about PhDs and their 'sand boxes.' I like to flip it around and accuse production of being the cat that keeps trying to turn my sand box into a litter box.

ScienceWoman said...

"Channel surfing" for someone hops from one research topic to the next in hopes of finding something "hot" and fundable?

And I have no idea what zorbing means.

Anonymous said...

"island hopping" for a proposal that touches on several seemingly disconnected phenomena without presenting an overarching theme.

I think I like, "I got pwned!" for scooped.

Unknown said...

I have heard the term "Edisonian research" at a recent small conference. "Edisonian" was used to describe the approach of trying many slight variations of researh experimentation to solve a problem, without really learning anything fundamental from the outcome of each experiment other than "it didn't work". Years ago I heard a paraphrased quote of Edison saying that he invented 50 ways not-to-make a light bulb before he invented the right way. I believe it refers to the many different materials that were tried as filaments, starting from carbonized bamboo and ending up with tungsten.

Ms.PhD said...

Carbonized bamboo? Has that ever been found to be good for anything?

Edisonizing sounds an awful lot like "plug and chug" to me. Not terribly scientific when described as randomly casting about, although making minor adjustments based on, I don't know, logical hypotheses about what characteristics you need-? That starts to sound a little more like science.

Anyway I think the 'fishing expedition' analogy makes more sense in light of climate change and ecology. Nowadays, you never know when you're going to find yourself in a pond that has no fish in it whatsoever. The key thing about this criticism is that if you have no candidates, no positive controls for your assay, and no alternative plans, you might be up a creek without a paddle.

Clemens said...

A while ago heard somebody talk about the difference of science and engineering in an information-theoretic perspective. In that view, engineering consists of creating something with minimal risk of a failure. I.e. the endeavour must be predictable and thus plannable. In information theory you would say: It must have a low entropy.
In science, in contrast, the aim is to maximize information. How much information do you gain if the outcome of a trial is known in advance? Nothing. Small entropy. Thus, a fishing expedition is not an accurate term, as it doesn't capture the huge gain in information if something's "caught" (fish are all the same). As a scientist, one ought to seek to answer the question where the outcome is unknown. Although this should not lead to dilletantic design of experiments. Better like Edison, one bit at a time.

EcoGeoFemme said...

For ScienceWoman:
Zorb = rolling down a hill in a giant clear beach ball partially filled with warm water. So maybe as a science insult it could mean that you are barrelling aimlessly down an ill defined research path, but feeling very relaxed about it.

ScienceWoman said...

Thanks, ecogeofemme.

Anonymous said...

how about zorbing for research that appears imprevious to the findings of other research groups, or reality. Research "in a bubble", so to speak.

Ann said...

You've hit the nail on the head--the thing that drives me most crazy about grant writing is that you basically have to have done the experiments to show that they'll work as "preliminary data", and what the grant is *really* funding is whatever comes after what's in the proposal.

Anonymous said...

Goddess bless you. Every time I see a female child I hope she grows up to be a scientist. Scientists are my heros but science needs a lot more input from humanities better half.

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