04 February 2011

Will you still love me if I don’t win the Nobel prize?

Yesterday, I posted a link to this article about a woman getting out of Science on Twitter. It got a huge number of re-Tweets. And, because the scientific community is that small, some knew this person personally and collaborated with her.

I’ll bet there are going to be a lot of blog posts in response to this article. There’s a lot going on in it.

The thing that struck me most were the repeated references to Nobel prizes and Nobel prizewinners. First, she works in a lab that has generated multiple laureates:

I got the top first in my year and applied, with a mixture of terror and chutzpah, for a Ph.D. at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, which was then at the pinnacle of science in the United Kingdom; seven scientists working there during my time have gone on to win Nobel Prizes.

Then she works with someone who become a Nobel winner.

I graduated with a solid Ph.D. from LMB after 3 years and then went for postdoctoral work in San Francisco with J. Michael Bishop... With a pretty good curriculum vitae in hand, I came home in 1989 – the same year Mike won a Nobel Prize – to a tenure-track job, running my own research lab at a University of London institute, where I remained until the sad demise of my career.

Her estimation of her scientific worth becomes measured against Nobel winners.

My initial conviction – essential for anyone who wants to make it as a scientist – that I could really make a difference, maybe even win a few prizes and get famous, eroded when I realized that my brain was simply not wired like those of the phalanx of Nobelists I met over the years; I was never going to be original enough to be a star.

It all ends with an industrial-grade case of imposter syndrome:

My loss of belief in my own potential was the first step toward where I am today. Once I had decided I would never be shaking hands with royalty in Stockholm, I downgraded my career expectations drastically, in a way that fellow failed perfectionists may recognize.

Over and over again: the measure, the yardstick, the standard of worth is the Nobel prize.

I’ve never understood this obsession with the Nobel prize.

Back in grad school, I said over dinner with a guest speaker that I never got the mentality of people who aspired to win a Nobel prize. This generated an anecdote about Konrad Lorenz. Lorenz was heading an institute, and when time came for him to step down, someone remarked to Lorenz that it would be hard to find a replacement for.

“Well, you can’t really replace me,” Lorenz said. “I’m a genius.”

It’s not just the Nobel, of course. It’s getting papers in Science and Nature. It’s who can bring in the most grant money. It’s who can run the biggest labs with the most grad students and post-docs.

None of this is healthy. Let’s not pretend that merit is the one and only factor in scientific success. The pursuit of fame in science is subject to the same vagaries of luck and chance as in arts like acting and music.

It’s a little demeaning for people who don’t work in fields that win Nobel prizes or get published in Science, Nature or Cell or is funded by the biggest government agency. Because having yardsticks for greatness that are unattainable in some fields means that you have to spend your career getting subtle signals that you are a second class scientist.

In my classes, I often tell my students about some research that won the Nobel prize – Lorenz and Tinbergen and von Frisch, or Hodkin and Huxley – then end with, “It should have been the Nobel prize in biology. But there is no Nobel prize in biology.”

I’m glad for that. Because there seems to be something strange and corrosive about that particular prize that breeds avarice and envy.

I wonder if mathematicians feel the same way?

Picture by quinn.anya on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.


Bora Zivkovic said...


Unknown said...

This focus on external validation is unhealthy for sure. Scientists should be self-motivated.

Anonymous said...

What strikes me is that if you look at her publishing record, it's not as bad as she makes it sounds. Sounds more like she quit rather than got fired.