It takes small teams, an absence of bureaucracy and “intense peer pressure” for laboratories to win a Nobel prize, according to a chemistry laureate who has calculated which countries have to spend the least per Nobel breakthrough.
Michael Levitt, who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2013 for his work on computer models of molecules, also warned in an address to early career researchers that young scientists were being shut out by “ageist” grants committees.
Outlining his hopes for the future of basic science, Professor Levitt pointed to the success of his former workplace, the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, which over the past 60 years has hosted 26 laureates. “The productivity has been quite amazing,” he said.
Lab managers needed to make sure that their researchers were not exposed to too much paperwork, he stressed to delegates at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany, a gathering where prizewinners mingle with younger researchers to impart career advice and explain their latest work.
There was “no visible bureaucracy” at the LMB, he recalled. “The leader of the lab did everything he could to hide the bureaucracy.”
Small groups – an average of three scientists, and sometimes individual researchers working on their own – were also important to its success, he said, as was “intense peer pressure” creating an atmosphere where “you’re as good as your next paper”, which he described as “kinda scary”.
Another key factor in the LMB’s prowess was a lack of hierarchy, he said. This flat structure is being mimicked by London’s new biomedical Francis Crick Institute, which has hopes to function in what director Sir Paul Nurse has called a state of “gentle anarchy”.
Professor Levitt, who aside from his work on chemistry has also published work on the broader state of science, presented research into which countries had to spend the least on research to win a Nobel prize. While there was a correlation between spending and prizes overall, “some countries – the UK, Switzerland, Sweden...these are countries where the Nobel prizes are less expensive than other countries”, he told delegates.
The UK had to spend just $13 billion (£10 billion) on research per prize – adjusted for purchasing power parity – while the US ($28 billion), Germany ($66 billion) and China ($840 billion) had spent far more.
China, along with Japan and Italy, has “not been very efficient at getting Nobel prizes”, he said. China is now in a similar position to the US prior to 1945, when it “didn’t care much about basic research – they were much more interested in inventing the telephone, the electric light bulb, skyscrapers and everything else”, he speculated.
Professor Levitt also warned delegates that “we are doing a lot of damage to our science by not supporting younger people”.
Drawing on co-authored research he published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he pointed out that, since 1980, a 35-year-old researcher’s chance of winning a grant from the US National Institutes of Health had fallen by half – while for a 60-year-old it had doubled.
This was due to “ageism” as the age of grant committees went up, he said. “When you’re 40, 30 seems young. When you’re 50, 40 seems young,” he said. “From the point of view of a grant, 40 is the new 20.”
“Young people are special – they don’t know too much,” he said. It was “not an accident” that some of the greatest recent innovations outside science – Facebook, Google and Microsoft – had been founded by university dropouts. “They couldn’t get old enough to finish their degrees and not create these massive revolutions,” he said.