Winning the prize but not the jackpot

November 7, 1997

Being awarded a Nobel prize brings recognition and acclaim, but not as much money as might be expected, Julia Hinde finds

Buckyballs made Harry Kroto (left) famous beyond science circles - they surely also made him a very rich man.

A Nobel-winning scientist, his shared prize alone was worth more than Pounds 200,000. On top of that, there are lecture tours and spin-offs from his discovery. Buckyballs, a new form of football-shaped carbon, can be made into tubes of enormous strength and lightness - a whole new world of superconductors, remarkable building materials and drug applications is on the verge of opening up.

Yet it would appear Kroto is not set to become a multi-millionaire from the breakthrough. It turns out, in fact, a surprisingly hard task to find a Nobel prize-winning scientist with millions of pounds under his belt. Possibly embarrassed to disclose their wealth to a journalist, a straw poll of British science Nobel winners failed to find many multi-millionaires.

But perhaps this should not come as such a surprise. Patent rules, publication pressures and academic mindsets all rule against Nobel prizewinners becoming massive earners, says Oxford University professor Dennis Noble, who, incidentally, is not a Nobel winner. Noble points out that what wins science Nobel prizes is fundamental theory work and basic research that may not initially appear to have a commercial application.

When Frederick Sanger won his first Nobel prize in 1958 for work on the structure of insulin, he says it was not then obvious that there would be future commercial possibilities. Insulin is now used by diabetics worldwide.

"I had a salary," explains Sanger. "But I never patented anything, or made any money from my prizes." He points out that as an employee of the Medical Research Council at the time, a patent would have belonged to his employers anyway.

In the past few decades universities and research councils have caught on to the importance of protecting their employees' intellectual property, but in the days when Britain was at her Nobel-winning prime - for 20 years after the war we had more prize winners per head of population than any other country - potential commercial uses and patents were rarely considered.

Today the MRC is quick to licence employees' discoveries. If someone finds a use for a council discovery, the research council, the unit where the work was undertaken and the employee all share in the windfall. The way the council's system is structured means that as the earnings go up, the individual researcher's share of the profits decreases keeping a likely cap on earnings. Many universities have similar reward schemes now in place.

But it appears that even if a prize-winning process is patentable, the process can be prohibitively expensive. Roger Taylor worked on buckyballs with Harold Kroto at Sussex. "I did patent a method of producing fullerenes," he says. "But it's very expensive to extend that patent to another country. So I sold the patent to a German company. To extend it would have been more than the university could afford. Universities don't have the money to patent in every country."

Taylor further points out that the pressure to publish research findings, imposed by the government's research assessment exercise, also mitigates against British scientists becoming millionaires. "There is a pressure to publish which is so great in British universities that people publish before they can work out a potential use and application," he says.

In Britain, once a paper has been published, the process is no longer patentable. With scientists' research careers increasingly dependent on published work, the push to get into print may mitigate against holding off until a patent is filed. Taylor adds: "In industry they keep ideas under wraps for longer. People's careers don't depend on publishing." And in the United States scientists have a year's grace after publishing in which they can still file a patent, meaning that publication may not necessarily prevent profiting from a discovery.

Noble says that raising money to develop a scientific idea commercially is not easy on either side of the Atlantic. "It requires an awful lot of work," he says. "You don't get an awfully high strike rate and it can mean giving up days to convince people that what you are doing is exploitable. In my experience there is more of a culture of financial support for innovative science and technology in the US than here." Additionally, according to Noble, the mindsets of an original discoverer, of someone whose work is likely to win them a Nobel prize, and of an entrepreneur who can exploit an idea, are not the same. "I try to combine them," he explains. "I have formed two companies to try to do that, but I have to have a split personality. I operate in one mode when with scientific colleagues in the laboratory and in a different mode with financiers.

"Perhaps we need to ask the question the other way around - why are scientists so rarely on the boards of companies? I think it's because they don't always have the kinds of attitudes that allow the exploitation of something."

Other sources of income are certainly open to Nobel-winning scientists. As Kroto has found, invitations to lecture can be overwhelming. But according to Sir Aaron Klug, president of the Royal Society and himself a chemistry Nobel winner in 1982, the going rate for lectures is low. "It doesn't match Mrs Thatcher's fee," he says.

Others turn their hands to writing. American Kary Mullis won the prize for chemistry four years ago for inventing the polymerase chain reaction, the crucial trick used to amplify tiny samples of genetic DNA. A patent was taken out by the company for whom he worked. This was then allegedly sold on for Pounds 300 million. Nancy Cosgrove, Mullis's fiancee, says he got a Pounds 10,000 bonus from the company at the end of the year, but has not profited hugely otherwise.

It appears that, in the sciences, for the most part, Nobel winning and millionaire status do not go hand in hand. The picture, however, could be very different in other areas. This year's Nobel winners in economics devised a new way to value stock options. Their ideas were published immediately and widely circulated and have been used by thousands of City and Wall Street traders to make millions. One of the winners, Robert Merton of Harvard University, explains that, though they did not profit directly from their Nobel-winning work, "the three of us have had extraordinary opportunities".

He adds: "The financial world in terms of economic rewards has treated us very well," offering consultancy work and directorships. "One of the wonderful things about the field is that you can do theoretical research and at the same time practice."

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