Monday, 12 January 2015

Performance Enhancing Drugs

My department began its trial of free filter-coffee and tea today and it got me thinking of how caffeine is a bedrock of research. I think the drop in publications could be easily measured in an institute where caffeine was banned. It's most obvious use is in keep people awake during those soul-crushing paper revision periods or when you're unfortunate enough to be doing an experiment that takes 12 hours plus to complete. It also comes in handy for spiking alertness during seminars and lab meetings and can lead to discussions/ideas that may never have occurred if you were half asleep. Then there's the social side of a group of scientists talking about their day over a cup of coffee.

Which leads me to the other drug of research - alcohol. Let's not dwell on the negative side of it in science but consider its role in getting scientists to network. I can't count the number of times (possibly due to the amount of drink?) I've chatted with other scientists over a beer and found they are working on something similar or useful to me that I'd be unaware of if I weren't chatting to them at a pub/social event. The other useful thing about the alcohol is that it often encourages some out-of-the-box ideas/collaborations which you both swear you will follow up first thing tomorrow. A lot of the time said ideas may not look so Nobel worthy when sober but occasionally they still do. The key thing here is that as you've got someone else involved your more likely to try those borderline cases which could be inspired (or a waste of time).

Then you have the less obvious drugs.

In terms of drug induced ideas you only have to look back to the 60s and 70s when it seems like any biochemist worth his/her salt was making and taking psychedelic drugs. If anyone ever wants to make a 60s version of breaking bad they could do worse than base it on north American biochemists of the era. It certainly didn't seem to harm Kary Mullis (of PCR fame) in any (scientific) way although it may have been the talking green raccoon alien that helped him? Come to think of it could make a great protagonist for a crazy scientist show set in the 60s/70s. I should get to work on that one.

Another drug that some scientists may not own up to using is cannabis. The obvious use is to help relaxation but I've heard several scientists tell me that it helps them concentrate. Some people just have too many ideas going on in their head at times and a bit of cannabis can help them focus on the task at hand. I guess "smart drugs" could also be used to the same effect and will probably become more common as younger generations who have become almost dependent on them for exams continue to use them at work.

I'm sure there are more drugs that have played a part in research. For the cigarette smoker I'm sure they help in a relaxation way - although it always seems a bit odd seeing researchers smoke outside a cancer research institute (they usually hide them away to avoid bad publicity). It's probably a good thing researchers are researching the effects of drugs on people too. There's probably an incentive to check on possible side-effects.

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