The Nobel path is not a safe one

Planning to win top laurels is a fool’s errand, so how should research be structured to best produce far-reaching results?

October 2, 2014

It’s not often we can boast of four Nobel laureates gracing our pages in the same issue.

So what persuaded such an illustrious lot to write for us this week? The chance to explore the meaning of life, the universe and everything, perhaps? In fact, with this year’s crop of laureates about to take the life-changing call from Sweden, we asked a much more pressing question: what is it like to win a Nobel prize (and how does one go about it)?

The answer to the former question is “great”. The answer to the latter is that there is just one thing you must make absolutely sure of if you are to stand any chance of winning a Nobel: on no account do you set out with the intention of winning a Nobel.

True breakthroughs of the sort that shift paradigms, open up new fields and win Nobels 10 to 40 years later tend to be one-offs

The power of serendipity is highlighted by each of our laureates, with Venki Ramakrishnan, who shared the 2009 Nobel in chemistry, arguing that the only sensible research strategy is to “pursue something one finds really interesting, where the day-to-day incremental progress brings pleasure”.

There is comfort in that for the vast majority who will never win such garlands, and in the recognition that, as Sir Richard Roberts (winner of the 1993 prize in physiology or medicine) puts it, “a great deal of luck is essential”.

What’s clear is that true breakthroughs of the sort that shift paradigms, open up new fields and win Nobels 10 to 40 years later tend to be one-offs – lightning bolts of inspiration sometimes, but just as often good ideas stumbled upon in one area that turn out to be unimaginably significant in another.

Clearly there would be no point planning such work, and these widely accepted and understood truths are strong arguments against any attempt to pick winners.

The risk that many see in the current funding environment, in which research “impact” and peer review of research proposals play a crucial role, is that researchers are being pushed towards “safe” subjects approved by their peers.

Last week, the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced a project to mine into the thousands of impact case studies (6,975 to be precise) compiled for the research excellence framework, with the aim of “extracting common themes and messages” from the cache.

Following publication of the 2014 REF results in December, debate about the role of such measures in the next one will no doubt start in earnest, but one way or another, impact is here to stay.

Whether this shift does, as critics warn, damage our record as a world leader in blue-sky research remains to be seen, and perhaps those responsible for funding research would consider an adjustment that results in fewer Nobels but more lower-level “impact” across the board as a price worth paying. The counter argument is that it is the paradigm-shifting stuff that ultimately has the greatest impact in any terms you care to mention: social, economic – take your pick.

That may not always hold true, but if it is return on investment that you are after, we may in any case be barking up the wrong tree. The key is ensuring that there is a research and commercial base – working in union – that is capable of capitalising on the world-leading research that we are producing, however we stumble upon it.

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