Magnanimity pays off

Earlier this year, I read an inspiring recollection (by Sydney Brenner) of a grand scientific milestone: the elucidation of the genetic code. How do DNA nucleotides code for the amino-acid sequence of proteins? This fundamental question had captivated numerous scientists, including Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner. The punchline of this wonderful interview/recollection is a magnanimous act by Francis Crick:

crick-13154-portrait-mini-2xIn August 1961, more than 5,000 scientists came to Moscow for five days of research talks at the International Congress of Biochemistry. A couple of days in, Matt Meselson, a friend of Crick’s, told him the news: The first word of the genetic code had been solved, by somebody else. In a small Friday afternoon talk at the Congress, in a mostly empty room, Marshall Nirenberg—an American biochemist and a complete unknown to Crick and Brenner—reported that he had fed a single repeated letter into a system for making proteins, and had produced a protein made of repeating units of just one of the amino acids. The first word of the code was solved. And it was clear that Nirenberg’s approach would soon solve the entire code.

Here’s where I like to imagine what I would have done if I were Crick. For someone driven solely by curiosity, Nirenberg’s result was terrific news: The long-sought answer was arriving. The genetic code would be cracked. But for someone with the human urge to attach one’s name to discoveries, the news could not have been worse. Much of nearly a decade’s worth of Crick and Brenner’s work on the coding problem was about to be made redundant.

I’d like to believe I would have reacted honorably. I wouldn’t have explained away Nirenberg’s finding to myself, concocting reasons why it wasn’t convincing. I wouldn’t have returned to my lab and worked a little faster to publish my own work sooner. I’ve seen scientists react like this to competition. I’d like to believe that I would have conceded defeat and congratulated Nirenberg. Of course, I’ll never know what I would have done.

Crick’s response was, to me, remarkable and exemplary. He implored Nirenberg to give his talk again, this time to announce the result to more than 1,000 people in a large symposium that Crick was chairing. Crick’s Moscow meeting booklet survives as an artifact of his decision, with a hand-written “Nirenberg” in blue ink, and a long arrow inserting into an already-packed schedule the scientist who had just scooped him. And when Nirenberg reached the stage, he reported that his lab had just solved a second word of the code.

by Bob Goldstein 

I admire Crick’s reaction. It is very honorable. In the long run, it helped both science and Crick’s reputation. Nirenberg had a correct result and sooner or later, he was going to receive credit for it. Crick facilitated this process, and in the process Crick only added to his own credit. Our current admiration for Crick’s reaction at the Moscow conference is the only proof I need.

Any interpretation that sees Crick’s magnanimous act as being good only for the science but bad for Crick’s personal reputation is myopic; it misses the long run. It misses mine (and hopefully yours) opinion of Crick’s magnanimous act.

Honor or Disrespect

Before presenting, a scientist is introduced to a group of expert scientists with a list of prizes, awards, grants, titles and fellowships but no word of the research that led to these accolades. I have been in the audience many times, and every single time I felt disrespected. I also felt that the presenter’s research was being disrespected.

I previously wrote why I find this type of introduction subversive to our scientific culture. Why is it disrespectful to the presenter and the audience? On the surface, some may see it as honoring the presenter and their research. However, I see it as delegating the critical thinking and the evaluation to external, often anonymous and sometimes highly political, committees. Instead of proving useful background framing the research we are about to hear, it asserts the authority of the presenter based on accolades. Assertion of authority is inimical to critical thinking. If the presenter has done significant research, the audience of scientists — attending the talk because of their interest and expertise in the research area — should be able to understand and appreciate the research. The audience would not appreciate the significance only if they lack expertise or if the research accomplishments of the presenter are not highly significant. These two possibilities are exactly my interpretation of an introduction enumerating a list of accolades. Both possibilities are disrespectful!

Tell me about the science, not the prizes!

The more we focus on awards and advertise career building, the more we attract people seeking awards and glamorous careers, and the bigger the burden on the peer review system.

The independent and critical assessment of data and of analysis is at the core of the scientific method. Yet, the rapid growth of the scientific enterprise and the explosion of the scientific literature have made it not only hard but impossible to read, think deeply, and assess independently all published papers, or even the subset of all papers relevant to one’s research. This is alarming. It has alarmed many people thinking of creative and effective ways to evaluate the quality of scientific research. This exceptionally hard endeavor has attracted much needed attention and I am hopeful that progress will be made.

In this essay, I suggest another approach to alleviating the problem, starting with two related questions: Why is low quality “science” written up and submitted for publication and what can we do to curb such submissions? These questions touch upon the poorly quantifiable subject of human motivation. Scientists have a complex set of incentives that include understanding nature, developing innovating solutions to important problems, and aspirations for social status, prestige and successful careers. All these incentives are part of our human nature, have always existed and always will. Yet, the balance among them can powerfully affect the problems that we approach and the level of evidence that we demand to convince ourselves of the truths about nature.

In my opinion, scientific culture can powerfully affect the incentives of scientists and in the process harness the independent thought of the individual scientists — not only the external reviewers — in raising the standards and rigors of their own work. I see a culture focused on prizes and career building as inimical to science. If the efforts of bright young people are focused on building careers, they will find ways to game the system. Many already have. As long as the motivation of scientists is dominated by factors other than meeting one’s own high standards of scientific rigor, finding the scientific results worthy of our attention will remain a challenge even with the best heuristics of ranking research papers. However, if “the pleasure of finding things out” — to use Feynman’s memorable words — is a dominant incentive, the reward, the pleasure, cannot be achieved unless one can convince oneself of the veracity of the findings. The higher the prominence of this reward intrinsic to scientific discovery is, the lower the tendency to game the system and the need for external peer review.

A scientific culture that emphasizes the research results — not their external reflections in prizes and career advancement — is likely to diminish the tendency to use publishing primarily as a means of career advancement, and thus enrich the scientific literature of papers worthy our attention. We know that racial stereotypes can be very destructive and we have lessened their destructive influences by changing the popular culture. How can we apply this lesson to our scientific culture to focus on the critical and independent assessment of research and thus lessen the negative aspects of career building and glamour seeking?

A great place to begin is by replacing the headlines focused on distinctions and building careers with headlines focused on factual science. For example, the “awards” section in CVs, faculty profiles and applications for grants and tenure-track faculty-positions can be replaced by a “discoveries” section that outlines, factually, significant research findings. Similarly, great scientists should be introduced at public meetings with their significant contributions rather than with long lists of prizes and grants they received. One might introduce Egas Moniz as the great Nobel laureate and Dmitri Mendeleev as a chemist with few great awards. Much more informatively, however, one should introduce Egas Moniz as an influential protagonist of lobotomy and Dmitri Mendeleev as the co-inventor of the periodic table of elements. 

Admittedly Mendeleev and Moniz are prominent outliers but they are far from being the only examples of discrepancy between awarded prizes and scientific contributions. Still the worst aspect of focusing on prizes, grants and career building is not only the reinforcement of political misattribution of credit; far worse is the insidious influence of excessive focus on prizes and career building on the scientific culture. The more we celebrate awards, the more we attract people seeking awards and glamorous careers, and the bigger the burden on the peer review system.

We should celebrate research and examples like those of Einstein and Feynman, not the prizes that purport to reflect such research. Focusing on the work and not the prize would hardly diminish the credit. Indeed, the Nobel prize derives its prestige from scientists like Einstein and Feynman and not the other way around. A prize may or may not reflect significant contributions and we should be given the opportunity to evaluate independently the contributions. We should focus on the scientific contributions not only because critical and independent evaluation of data is the mainstay of science but because it nourishes constructive scientific culture, a culture focused on understanding nature and not gaming the system. Only such a culture of independent assessment can give the best ideas a chance to to prevail over the most popular ideas.

The next time you have a chance to introduce an accomplished colleague, respect their contributions with an explicit reference to their work, not their prizes. With this act of respect you will help realign our scientific culture with its north star: the independent and critical evaluation of experiments, data, ideas, and conceptual contributions.

An edited version of this opinion essay was published by The Scientist Accomplishments Over Accolades