World University Rankings blog: Lessons from the laureates

Nobel prizewinners tell Phil Baty about their tips for success

June 29, 2015

I admit it. I seldom get starstruck but this week I’m exhibiting some alarming fanboy tendencies. I’m representing the THE World University Rankings as a guest at the 65th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

It is rather special – 67 Nobel prizewinners and more than 650 young scientists from 88 countries (selected after a rigorous global competition) packed into the tiny – and outrageously picturesque – Bavarian island town of Lindau for a week of sharing ideas and inspiration.

Most of the science is beyond me (Francois Englert, who shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2013, even gave the audience permission to sleep as he presented a particularly challenging mathematical slide) so I’ve been trying to gain from the laureates’ wisdom around the scientific process – the elusive personal factors that can be the catalyst for the biggest research breakthroughs and tips for university administrators on how excellence can be nurtured.

Given the huge reputational boost of having your very own Nobel laureate (and the potential associated boost in the global rankings), it is a subject close to the hearts of many of the university leaders I meet around the world.

Venki Ramakrishnan, who shared the prize for chemistry in 2009,  has a simple tip: understand your goal. He points out that Kodak failed after more than a century of success because its leaders failed to realise until it was too late that they were in the imaging business, not the film business.

Peter Doherty, co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1996, said it was all about talent. “First-rate people hire first rate, second-rate people hire third rate and the third rate never leave,” he told me over dinner.

J. Michael Bishop, who shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, was on hand to give us a deceptively simple formula.

He produced a slide with seven key tips to making those groundbreaking discoveries. It may have offered some wonderful personal pointers for the aspiring early career scientists in the room, but I doubt it would be well received by those trying to manage (and measure and fund) the scientific process.

The list included: “judicious disregard for received wisdom”; “self-confidence” and one to really frighten the bean counters – a “willingness to gamble”.

Eric Betzig (2014 laureate in chemistry) had even less welcome news for those university leaders wanting a quick fix for a quick win. 

He talked compellingly about how his many career failures were part of his progress to the Nobel prize. He also spoke passionately about his personal drive to always jump off the research bandwagon when it starts to get too crowded and to start afresh in new areas.

But the true secret of his success? “Just being left alone and allowed to focus 100 per cent” on the challenge at hand, he said.

And surely leaving legions of senior university administrators despairing, he added: “Not being in academia for me has been the key”.

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