Friday, June 24, 2005


My good friend, a hard worker and a brilliant and insightful chap, was working on the synthesis of a complicated molecule for the last year and a half, almost two years. This Tuesday, the synthesis of that molecule was published by a team of four graduate students and postdocs led by Prof. David Evans of Harvard University, an acknowledged leader in the field. Needless to say, my friend felt morose; he had been scooped. Although I tried to console him and kept reminding him of the knowledge gained in the effort, it was clear that this incident rankled. The more important point concerns future work. This synthesis was an important landmark in the synthesis of an even more complicated molecule, work which would be sizeable for a whole PhD. However, now that the synthesis of the important molecule has been already published, and it is known that Prof. Evans is bent upon finishing the whole big molecule, my friend's advisor is having second thoughts about whether my friend should go for the entire project. Now even though this does not mean that my friend's efforts have been in vain (far from it; the training is invaluable in any case), this case, quite typical of many, raises the question of how credit is apportioned to scientists, and how this is going to (and has already) affected research and its future.

The important fact is, that my friend was the only one working on the project, whereas David Evans had four people (the joke making the rounds being that he also had four whips). No matter if my friend had been the most brilliant organic chemist in the world, perhaps he still would not have been able to do this early all by himself. The big question that emerges is; are the greatest advances in science going to be made by researchers who have the greatest manpower and funding? Is this 'fair'? Ever since WW2, when science became 'big science', the picture of well-placed and influential scientists vying for big government grants and students has become an enduring necessity in the cut-throat world of research, and especially the corporate-like world of science in the United States. Not that these scientists are average; they are world leaders in their fields. But so are a couple of others, maybe working under unprevileged circumstances, in third world countries, with fewer students. The differences in raw ability between the two groups may be small. So is it unfair that the former are lauded and win prizes, while the others languish somewhat in the shadows, many times missing glory by a hairsbreadth? Is the future of science going to be decided by researchers who, even more than ability, have the biggest access to workers and resources?

A case in point is Prof. K. C. Nicolaou at the Scripps Research Institute, arguably the most famous organic chemist in the world today. Over the last fifteen years, his lab has churned out a series of spectacular syntheses of giant molecules having great import, both for the relevance of the field, as well as for medicine. While nobody denies Prof. Nicolaou's erudition, it is quite clear that such factory-like publishing is made possible by the almost fifty people in his lab, most of them postdocs who are already capable workers. All these researchers work day and night, at a pace that would be unmatched by anyone else who lacks this manpower, no matter how brilliant he may be. Another case involves Prof. Robert Langer at MIT, a giant among giants in the field of Biomedical Engineering, and one of the biggest stars in science in the last twenty years. Working in the field of drug delivery and a host of other capabilities, he has already published more than 800 papers in the most famous journals in the world, and filed close to five hundred patents. He has won virtually every award possible in his field, except the Nobel. His secret? Nobody knows for sure, because success in science involves a lot of factors. But one suspects that a large part of it is made possible because of the 100 students and postdocs in his lab, an awe inspiring number. I don't know of any other lab which boasts of such an enormous research family. I could site many such examples. Needless to say, both these men are considered prime candidates for the Nobel Prize by many. So is it unfair to other almost equally brilliant men and women who simply lack the access to manpower and funding? I don't know the answer; it is a big dilemma. And this problem is a very big one and involves the general disparity between people of all ilks in the world. The short answer to the question is, "Yes. It IS unfair. But then, the world is unfair". This answer, while providing comfort to the philosophers among us, does not really solve the practical question of apportioning credit. In the capricious world of research, it is truly difficult to assign credit and due to this, flared tempers and jealous sensibilities abound, as much as in any other area of human affairs.

While there is no 'solution' as such to this grand problem, I think its severity can be mitigated to some extent by reducing our obsession with titles and names, by not blindly getting mesmerized by the aura of the United States, Harvard and Yale and Oxford, and the Nobel Prize, capable as these institutions and their products are. Talent is not an excessively rare commodity, and we would be doing the unluckier wielders of talent a service by acknowledging their existence, in a world in which they are as necessary as their better known and equally talented counterparts. If not the title holder, they are still like Sania Mirza in her latest match, a close and equally respectable distinguished second, if second at all.


Blogger Nikhil K said...

I had read somewhere that suicide rates amongst scientists is among the highest. Didn't the leaders of the CERN and HGP get the Nobels largely due to the large team they led? So, who will decorate the Unknown Scientist?

1:40 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Would be VERY interested to know where you got this info from. Looks sort of hand-waving and suspicious :)

7:05 AM  
Blogger Nikhil K said...

can't give you any exact source. But I do seem to have read it in some old New Scientist. Or else, it is a figment and conjured up by my mind from some bits and pieces read here and there.

7:26 AM  

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