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Massimiano Bucchi: Geniuses, heroes and saints – JBS Haldane Lecture 2019

Malcolm RChalmers18 January 2019

Our next JBS Haldane Lecture will take place on Wednesday 23rd January 2019, with Massimiano Bucchi giving his talk ‘Geniuses, Heroes and Saints: How the Nobel Prize has (re)invented the public image of science’. As an introduction to this topic, Prof. Bucchi has written a brief blog post for *Research, reproduced below.

 

The Nobel prizes embody three narratives about the role of elite scientists in society—and they came along at just the right time, says Massimiano Bucchi.

In the autumn of 1996, a UK research council committee rejected a funding application from Harry Kroto. Two hours later, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences called to say that he and two colleagues had won the Nobel prize for chemistry for their discovery of fullerenes; the same subject as the grant application.

The research council swiftly reversed its decision. The British chemist had now entered the small circle of ‘visible scientists’, the elite on whom awards such as the Nobel prize confer almost unassailable prestige and a reputation able to open every door.

This and similar dynamics were described by Robert Merton, founder of the sociology of science, as the ‘Matthew effect’, from the passage in Matthew’s Gospel that states: ‘For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.’

Those in positions of visibility and prestige get privileged access to further resources and prestige, and so on. As one Nobel prizewinner for physics put it: “The world is peculiar in this matter of how it gives credit. It tends to give the credit to [already] famous people.” Or in the words of the Abba song: “The winner takes it all.”

I first visited the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1998. Ever since, I have been studying how the Nobel prize shapes the public image of science—and scientists. The prize announcements are one occasion when science makes global headline news, reaching audiences that are quite distant and not much interested in science. ‘Nobel’ has become a metonym for scientific genius and success.

As another sociologist, Harriet Zuckerman, noted in her 1977 book Scientific Elite, “[the Nobel’s] influence on the public’s image of science probably counts for more than its function as incentive for scientific accomplishment”.

But how has the prize actually shaped how we think about science and scientists? In my 2017 book Come Vincere un Nobel, I argue that the prize underlies three popular narratives: the scientist as genius, the scientist as national hero and the scientist as saint.

The narrative of genius emphasises the scientist’s creativity and intellectual exceptionality, reflecting a solitary and romantic ideal. The narrative of the national hero allows the Nobel laureate to speak in the name of a nation, surrogating and sublimating the tensions and rivalries between nations into a more peaceful and noble competition. The narrative of saint incarnate—a focus of attention and worship, celebrated and consecrated through the elaborate ceremony ritual—is an update of the traditional ideal of the scientist as a secular ascetic.

In terms of the public image and social role of science, the Nobel was the right prize at the right time.

When the first prizes were awarded in 1901, science was already becoming more complex, organised and impersonal. The narrative of genius allowed a focus on individual contributions, figures and faces.

At the same time, the struggle and competition between nations was finding a peaceful alternative in arenas such as the Olympic games and universal exhibitions, and science was beginning to be seen as an expression of national strength. The Nobel prizes offered an opportunity to express political rivalry by other means, especially as they were based in neutral Sweden.

And as the moral exceptionality of scientists began to be questioned, and research was increasingly defined as a profession rather than as a vocation, the prize gave a new language to scientific virtues such as modesty, humility and dedication to the scientific enterprise.

For the general public, science largely remains abstract and inscrutable. The Nobel prize contributed to giving science a face, creating a rich and fascinating repertoire of stories. Alfred Nobel held 355 patents, but the prize founded in his name was his greatest invention.

To quote John Polanyi, speaking at the Nobel banquet after winning the 1986 chemistry prize: “We applaud you, therefore, for your discovery, which has made a memorable contribution to civilisation—I refer, Your Majesties and our Swedish hosts, to the institution of this unique prize.”

Massimiano Bucchi is a sociologist of science at the University of Trento, Italy. He is giving the UCL Haldane lecture on Wednesday 23 January in London. You can book a place here.

Asking the tough questions on science policy

2 March 2009

A scientist discussing science policy on a major news programme is a welcome, if too infrequent, happening. Particularly so when the scientist is a Nobel Prize geneticist being interviewed on the role of scientific authority in a democratic society and on the appropriate level of funding for science during a recession.

The  interview, well-worth watching, is online on HardTalk’s website. Sadly,  Sir Paul Nurse‘s representation of the scientific community’s view compounded factual inaccuracies, a simplistic economic analysis, and a skillful evasion of any reference to philosophical or political grounding of his views on science policy and public understanding of science.

How much is enough?

Sir Nurse opened the interview stating his appreciation for the intention to “restore science in his rightful place” announced by Barack Obama in his inaugural speech, arguing that this should be achieved through a boost in funding and restoring the use of scientific expertise to inform public policy. But how much should be paid to restore the prestige of science?

Asked whether there actually is a “cause-effect link between spending whole lot new money and getting results”, Nurse replies obliquely with an exposition of the admittedly imperfect linear model. The US status as the world’s “powerhouse for science and translation of science” depends on its ability to translate basic science “into both creation of wealth through commercial development and also improvement in health” and quality of life:

[We] generate fundamental understanding and increases in knowledge that is available to the world. That increase in knowledge is absolutely crucial. But then around it what you need are spin-off relationships with those who are interested in the application of this research, who can pick up that freely available increase in knowledge and harness it into more applied uses. And that we do not yet think we have got quite right.

The traditional “public good” conception of science and the faith in spin-offs from basic research to technological innovation in the long run make it impossible to make rational evaluation on appropriate level of funding for science. How much is enough? Never.

A tradition of public funding

Nurse also argued that the US should return to their “traditional focus on the scientific endeavour in the public domain for the public good”. However, that America had a tradition of high public investment in science is inaccurate. The first graph below (representing the private- and public-sector contribution to US R&D and to basic science from 1940 to 1990) shows that there has never been a dominating tradition of public spending on science once one discounts the military spending that constituted the great part of the additional public spending during the Cold War (as shown in the second graph, documenting the US federal spending by category).

Science in a democracy

Nurse avoided pronouncing on the question of who should have the final say on future directions of science – citizens through their elected government or scientists themselves through self-government?

When we have been unhappy is not so much when society and politicians would make decisions that are based on the scientific evidence and then make the best decision (because society needs to have its impact); it’s when they try to ignore the science or actually even distort the science to defend a certain ideological position.

According to Nurse, if policy-makers listen to the scientists and if society is well-informed on the facts, then no problem shall arise. Problems in science may only come from the politicisation of science, i.e. from impure fact.

Challenged after his naive deficit-model answer to explain the growing distance between the scientific community and large sections of the public on topics such as human embryonic stem cell research, evolutionary biology, and climate change, Nurse chose again not to address the question of the legitimacy and accountability of scientific research in a democratic society.

Federal research is surely funded “by the people” and performed “for the people”, but Nurse struggled to explain how science could have any legitimacy “of the people” despite being rejected on philosophical, religious, or political grounds, Nurse had to resort to an eclectic bunch of justifications:

a) on stem cell research: there is a opinion-poll majority in favour of it (implying that the scientific community and “the people” should have the last say on which research should go ahead, until the government changes)

b) on climate change: the government is manipulating the fact and public opinion (implying that the scientific community alone should have the last say on which research should go ahead, until the government or the “people” come to reckoning)

c) on evolutionary theory: “what it means is that science education is failing in our school and public engagement with the media and so on is also failing” (implying that the scientific community alone should decide which research should go ahead, because society “is failing” science)

In other words, publicly-funded science is legitimate and democratic as long as the scientific community gets its way. For, Nurse argues, what counts for science in a democracy is not to come to precautionary, consensual, or widely-endorsed conclusions, but to reach the correct decisions, where the meter of correctness is held by the scientific community and handed down to the lay public:

we need to have a very good dialogue between science and scientists, and the public and society because so many decisions that we have to make in the modern world depend on science and technology. And if the public cannot get properly engaged with science and if scientists cannot help them with that, we are going to make incorrect decisions.

Nurse’s discourse is entirely formulated on the opposition between objective facts and ignorance of science, between scientific purity and political irrationality. Apparently, the solution to the culture war shouldn’t require much more than getting ourselves properly engaged and accepting scientists’ help.

Sir Nurse admitted: “at my low points I contemplated other alternative careers including study of the philosophy or sociology of science”. Nevertheless, as former head of the Science in Society programme at the Royal Society, he should know better.

The economic crisis and eventual cuts in government spending seem to me to create great opportunities for people who are willing to think creatively about science policy – redefining expectations and function of science funding, introducing meaningful science-citizenry engagement, rethinking the relation between politics and science. Hopefully STS graduands facing the possibility of having a lot of spare times in their hands might give it some thought as a career option.

(The graphs come from Mowery, D. C. and Rosenberg, N. 1989. Technology and the Pursuit of Economic Growth. Cambridge: CUP)