Restricting Nobel prizes to three individuals has always been problematic, and increasingly glosses over the contributions of everyday scientists
Yesterday, the Nobel prize in physics was awarded for the discovery of gravitational waves, following a massive group effort by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo) experiment. The announcement reignited the perennial discussion of how a scientific advance can possibly be ascribed to so few people.
According to a tweet by BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh, Professor Martin Rees, former Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, told BBC News, “@LIGO’s success was owed to hundreds of researchers. The fact that the #NobelPrize2017 committee refuses to make group awards is causing increasingly frequent problems + giving a misleading impression of how a lot of science is actually done”.
In fact, one of the three Nobel recipients himself, Emeritus Professor Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pointed out that the discovery didn’t involve hundreds, but more than 1000 scientists, taking “as long as 40 years of people thinking about this …”
Yet the Nobel committee does not allow the award to go to more than three people. There is no doubt that the three recipients have made spectacular contributions, but even before the advent of massive “Big Science” projects such as Ligo, it was nearly always difficult to pin credit for the work on so few. As science becomes increasingly interdisciplinary, this problem will only get worse.
When it comes to great scientific discoveries, we as a storytelling species seem to long for a protagonist, a person or a few people around whom to crystallise the intangible advance. This is probably why ‘the eureka moment’ is such an engaging and sticky meme. Lighting strikes – and a researcher experiences a seminal moment that changes the fabric of our understanding of the universe forever.
Such is the stuff of grand stories, of lore, of rose-tinted mythology to inspire the next generation of scientists. The message? Anyone can be the hero, if they are in the right place at the right time and are open to the experience.
Alexander Fleming, a prime example of this narrative, noticed and wondered about that accidental, unwanted mould in his petri dish instead of chucking evidence of penicillin into the bin and heading off down to the pub. The rest is said to be history. But Fleming’s serendipitous (and possibly apocryphal) moment was only the beginning, and Fleming himself did not see the discovery through. Hard graft and incremental advances are not nearly as sexy as creation myths.
This bias is also true in science with a small ‘s’, from work generated from just one modest laboratory. When I read about the latest biological breakthrough, I see ranged behind the chosen protagonists – the celebrated authors on the paper – a ghostly rank of nameless, faceless researchers stretching back in time.
There are the students and postdocs who contributed to earlier incarnations of the work. There are people whose contributions were too minor to qualify them as authors: technicians, for example, or people who operate essential skilled services.
Then there are the people who don’t even know they’ve helped. Speakers at conferences, whose work ignited a key idea. Authors of related older papers, whose previous work was scoured for clues on how to move newer work forward. I think it’s no exaggeration to estimate that uncelebrated contributions could number in the hundreds, even for small projects that don’t involve massive teams.
Many, if not most, of these contributors will be young. Many will be on short-term contracts and not earning anywhere near as much as other professionals with the equivalent amount of education and training.
Many, as assessed by various surveys such those run by Vitae, will want to stay on in academia. But given that academic science is underpinned by a model of cheap, disposable labour, such dreams represent a highly unlikely outcome. For example, in the United Kingdom, a permanent position awaits only 3.5% of STEM PhDs in universities, and only 17% in non-university research organisations, including industry.
One of the easiest ways to score a coveted position in academia is to become a hero in the discovery narrative. Be named on the paper that hits the big time, and your future is all but assured. But contribute ideas, sweat and tears to a discovery in the background, and you may vanish with scarcely a trace.
The scientific profession, as a whole, could do a much better job at recognising all the shoulders, both giant and modest, upon which the great heroes stand. There are cogs and wheels in the massive machine that churns out discoveries, and each is essential.
And recognition is not just about major awards like the Nobel, which all but a handful will never win. It’s more important when it comes to career progression, for example when it’s time to shortlist or promote an individual for an academic position.
The annual Nobel cycle is a time to reflect afresh on the lone genius myth. Resisting its allure won’t be easy, and measuring an individual’s true worth and contribution will be even harder. But we owe it to all the unsung researchers to make the system of individual metrics and credit fairer.
Source link: https://www.theguardian.com/science/occams-corner/2017/oct/04/myth-lone-genius-nobel-gravitational-waves-ligo