Should we cultivate hacker’s mindset for innovation in biomedical research?

In my opinion biomedical research works within a framework which is not conducive to answering questions and solving problems. Let me explain. As far as I know most of the clinical as well as experimental works are quite reductionist in their approach focusing only on a favorite gene, protein, microbe, host, or environmental factor in relation to a health outcome. And given the inherent heterogeneity in the biological systems, most if not all studies rely on statistical methods that work on the average of the readout. This leads to the strong reliance on the p value as an indicator of hypothesis confirmation. Additionally, a lot of times there is no a priori mechanistic hypothesis and theoretical framework. If you read the biomedical research papers, many of them end with suggesting that the results have to be verified in a larger dataset.

Although biological systems are complex, we need to change perspective and framework to move towards innovative and transformative research that solves questions. A fascinating example is the scientific efforts to understand, prevent, and treat the SARS-CoV-2 pandemics. It is truly remarkable that within a span of a few months, we know so much about the virus, the disease, drug repurposing, and candidate vaccines; although still much remains to be learned as well. In my opinion, this is a perfect example of applying “hacker’s mindset” to a biomedical problem.

Bratus and colleagues define hacking as “the skill to question trust and control assumptions expressed in software and hardware, as well as in processes that involve human(s)-in-the-loop”. Raajas Sode defines hacking as “the ingenuity of new solutions to potentially (un)solvable problems”. While hacking has a negative connotation, the hacking mindset is a valuable and transferable asset that warrant closer attention.

“Hackers are motivated, resourceful, and creative” posits Seda Duman. They thoroughly examine the question/problem/process with the objective of being able to take control. This allows them to have a holistic perspective towards problem-solving. Hacker’s mindset could be divided into explorative and exploitative. The exploration mindset focuses on thinking and experimentation; while the exploitation mindset focuses on achieving goals. Creativity, persistence, curiosity, observation, and critical thinking are important attributes of the exploration mindset. Problem-solving, adaptability, focus on results, planning and organisation, and analysis are main characteristics of the exploitation mindset.

Hackers start by identifying all vulnerabilities, followed by scanning and testing the most promising ones. This translates to all ways in which one can achieve their stated objective for example find a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 or tackle obesity epidemics. It is important to highlight that the majority of human diseases are complex and multifactorial. Additionally, disease initiation and promotion occur over time during which the type, strength, and successive order of environmental factors play an important role. Even infectious diseases are complex as we have known for many years and is evident in the current pandemic that different individuals have different levels of predisposition to severe COVID-19. After the vulnerabilities are found, the next step would be to identify the most promising ways to achieve the biomedical goal such as preventing colorectal cancer. This means simultaneously targeting many, and not just one, of the crucial aspects (both scientific and social in the context of colorectal cancer screening).

While biomedical research has made significant progress so far, we would need to change perspective from finding statistically significant to actionable solution in order to truly venture into the transformative phase of biomedical research.

Picture credit: Obtained from HiClipart

Shirin Moossavi
Shirin Moossavi
Postdoctoral Fellow