Don’t ask what your Experiment can do for You: Ask what You can do for your Experiment!

I was planning to highlight physics as a veritable model, as champion of publications culture and team science from which we in the life sciences could learn so much.  And then this:  The Nobel Prize for physics went to Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne for the “experimental evidence” for the gravitation waves foreseen in 1919 by Albert Einstein.  Published in a paper with more than 3 000 authors!

Once again the Nobel Prize is being criticized:  That it is always awarded to the “old white men” at American universities, or that good old Mr. Nobel actually stipulated that only one person per area of research be awarded, and only for a discovery in the past year.  Oh, well….  I find more distressing that the Nobel Prize is once again perpetuating an absolutely antiquated image of science:  The lone research geniuses, of whom there are so few, or more precisely, a maximum of three per research area (medicine, chemistry, physics) have “achieved the greatest benefits for humanity”.  Awarded with a spectacle that would do honor to a Eurovision Song Contest or the Oscar Awards.  It doesn’t surprise me that this is received enthusiastically by the public. This cartoon-like image of science has been around since Albert Einstein at the latest.  And from Newton up to World War II, before the industrialization and professionalization of research, this image of science was justified.  What disturbs me is that the scientific community partakes so fulsomely in this anachronism.  You will ask why the Fool is getting so set up again –it’s harmless in the worst case, you say, and the winners are almost always worthy of the prize?  And surely a bit of PR can do no harm in these post-factual times where the opponents of vaccination and the climate-change deniers are on the rise?

Well I do think it is worthwhile questioning the Nobel Prize, because this image of science as a matter of individual genius is way off mark.  It is retrograde and in the end hostile to science.  Naturally we have these exceptional scientists.  Their contribution is important.  But progress in the sciences is based essentially on the achievements of many original and diligent researchers who make progress more effectively when they work together.  And perform “normal science” in Kuhn’s sense (see my recent post).  The international LIGO collaboration that proved the existence of gravitation waves is after all the exact opposite of a three-man show.  They publish their results as “LIGO Scientific Collaboration”, each with over 1,000 – sometimes 3000 – authors and hundreds of institutions.  And that is nothing unusual in physics, particularly in particle- and astrophysics.

There it was understood for the first time in the Manhattan Project, that huge complicated, projects that overcome the border of the momentary doable are only solved through large collaborating teams.  For the project to make nuclear fission usable for war labored under massive pressure for time.  Today the Large Hadron Collider of CERN in Geneva counts as the model facility of a multinational research in the great physical questions before mankind. From there emanate publications with more than 5000 authors, in alphabetical order.  Only seldom, by the way, do they publish in the prestigious journals such as Physical Review Letters or Nature.

With ARXIV in the early 90’s of the last century, the physics community in fact already constructed a document server for preprints that today constitutes worldwide the essential forum for scientific communication in physics and mathematics.  Completely free of charge for authors and readers, and absolutely no review.  In peer review journals today, only a small fraction of the articles are submitted, and then, often already with the feedback of the specialists from the preprint phase.  The publications lists of the physicists are full of these papers, including those selected in the “top 5”.  Often just as co-author.  And how could that be otherwise, with lists of 1000 authors?  You can become a professor or get an application through with Arxiv-papers too.  Because these preprints are read if they make a relevant contribution.  And the quality of a researcher is measured essentially by the contribution to solving the collectively formulated question.

Compare this with the life sciences.  The questions worked out there are in their complexity definitely equal to those in physics:  cancer, dementia, aging… These are also the hard questions of humanity, even under heavier time pressure than the search for Higgs Boson or a gravitational wave.  Does this not cry out for Manhattan-like collaboration?  Had life scientists been put on the search for the Higgs Boson, had 20 000 labs attempted to build SMALL Hadron Colliders, the size of a table centrifuge!

We work in groups with an average of 8 researchers (including students), all of whom have short work contracts, with grant funds assured for a maximum of three years.  Research strategies and results are kept secret up to publication.  One could get scooped.  Data sharing?  Heavens above!  What would I get from that?   It might even cause trouble.  How crazy is the question as to whether the basic questions of bioscience and medicine might not be better attacked in multinational, coordinated, sufficiently alimented long-term cooperation projects?  Should we not at least try it out?

You are rolling your eyes?  You are thinking: EU application bureaucracy, AZA forms, endless lists of milestones and deliveries?  But today’s collaborations are not at all about cooperation à la CERN.  They are usually more like bands of predators that finance local projects that haven’t received support elsewhere or aim at receiving additional financing.  Not even genetics can serve in this case as role model.  The Human Genome Project was not the Manhattan Project of Medicine, even if some claimed it was.  Its core was the distribution of sequencing work across numerous laboratories.  In the end, it was contract labor on an industrial scale, and that is the reason a company was able to scoop it.  Genuine collaboration à la CERN works differently.  Projects are developed individually or in a common effort, then prioritized in scientific discourse, constantly optimized and carried out in a team.  And that team gets the credit.  But why is it so completely different in the life sciences?  And does it have to be different?  Is it because the physics projects mentioned can only be carried out on machines, whose financing is visible in a budget of the national economy?  Certainly, the pressure to cooperate plays a big role here, but it also has a lot to do with the scientific culture in individual disciplines, which in turn is influenced by questions of infrastructure.  In “Epistemic Cultures” (How the Sciences make Knowledge, Harvard Press), Karin Knorr-Cetina compared the organization and execution of research in high energy physics and molecular biology.  How are the laboratories structured, how are groups led, how does “competition” play out and on what level, how does cooperation develop?

The differences she found could not be more drastic.  She concludes that high energy physics has displaced the “epistemic subject”, i.e. the individual scientist, in favor of the unconditional exchange of knowledge from the center of community research processes.  As in “Don’t ask what the experiment can do for you – Ask what you can do for the experiment”.  Molecular biology, according to her analysis in, has the reverse logic.  Its research is based on a ‘logic of exchange’.  For each action, a service is expected in response.  Since the progress of individual researchers in molecular biology also depends on collaboration, conflicts arise that are familiar to all of us.  When a contribution made to the field cannot be attributed to an individual (e.g. by first/last authorship), it is regarded by that individual as “waisted”.  This also gives rise to problems in the lab.  These conflicts are kept in check through the hierarchies in the lab, members of which are as a rule associated with the name of the head of the lab.  Inside the lab the logic of exchange also rules:  The PhD student as the water boy of the group leader, the group leader as water boy of the head of the institute (characteristic in medicine).  All this does not exist in high energy physics, or only in rudimentary form.  One recognizes that behind the question of how much collaboration takes place in a scientific domain lurks not only the cost of acquiring a research infrastructure but also grave cultural differences in the organization of research.

What does all this mean when we want to develop the potential for collaborations in the spirit of CERN (if not on that scale):  That it essentially about more than the accumulation of common infrastructure or the distribution of work packages à la EU-projects.  Our evaluation of working together on hypotheses and their confirmation, the exchange of materials and raw data, publication of results—all this must change radically.  As long as progress of the individual researcher from student to professor is only individual achievement and not dependent on his or her contribution for advancement of the area, that change will not happen.

And there we are again, with the Nobel Prize – the ultimate argument for individualism and against collaboration.  This physics Nobel Prize is an atavism because physics no longer functions that way.  Why not award the Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry and medicine to collaborations, just like the Nobel Peace Prize?


Yong, E. The Absurdity of the Nobel Prizes in Science – The Atlantic

Knorr-Cetina, Karin D.: Epistemic Cultures – How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999


A German version of this post has been published as  part of my monthly column in the Laborjournal:

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