Bruno Lemaitre wants us to take a long hard look at the way science is done today.
A distinguished expert on insect immunity and professor of immunology at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, he has found time to self-publish a bold and powerful polemic called An Essay on Science and Narcissism: how do high-ego personalities drive research in life sciences?
The picture it paints is not pretty. “Among the first signs that strike a newcomer to the academic world”, it argues, are “egocentrism, elitism, strategic media occupation and self-enhancement strategies”.
The book is described as “a personal view from the inside of a particular scientific community” and clearly has strong roots in Lemaitre’s own experience. Asked about this, he describes growing up in “a strongly prosocial environment” with “a ‘happy family’ spirit”, where “getting along” was highly valued. This left him ill-prepared, he suspects, for “some of the behaviour I discovered in the academy”. Even as a student in Paris in the 1980s, he was “struck by the power of dominant intellectual figures, often Marxists whose discourses sounded good but whose morals were poor”.
More significant was his experience in the early 1990s as a postdoc in the laboratory of the French immunologist Jules Hoffmann, who went on to win the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
Lemaitre has alleged elsewhere that he was largely responsible for the project that won the prize and that Hoffmann was “far from the realities of experimental bench work”. It was fascinating, he comments now, to “realise what a Nobel prizewinner could really be like, compared to our naive expectations as a child. To see the fascination that some scientists can create around them while their competence inside the lab is strongly questioned. To see and feel the influence of networks, the importance of ‘visibility’ for recognition…”
The central claim of Lemaitre’s new book, as the title suggests, is that many of the problems in science today arise from the fact that too many scientists are narcissists. And the malaise is particularly acute, he writes, in “research fields such as immunology and neuroscience, which are in the public’s focus and more sensitive to swagger and catchy wording”.
Much of An Essay on Science and Narcissism is therefore devoted to defining and illustrating the narcissistic personality, with fictional examples and brief biographies of well-known scientists, along with a few references to music, football and fashion. There are also sections on the developmental roots of narcissism in individual lives; the evolutionary roots of narcissism; and whether contemporary Western societies are particularly narcissistic.
Although the arguments are boldly and suggestively sketched in rather than fully developed, they are often enlivened by striking vignettes of science in practice. Most of them illustrate one key point: “As scientists, we all know that a certain quality, pejoratively referred to as being ‘political’, is often necessary to reach the highest scientific circles.”
How, for example, is a young scientist to make a name for him or herself? Canny opportunists, reports Lemaitre, are often good at producing what the French call casseroles: flashy papers that make a lot of noise (like the cooking pots attached to the cars of newly weds) and “attract attention at a key point in a career” but “generally tell a big story…without any real follow-up”. Particularly effective are the “sexy three-quarter-right papers…because they are almost impossible to debunk”.
Self-publicists are also good at taking sole credit for collaborative achievements and reducing long periods of hard work to “mythic moments of discovery” that journalists can’t resist.
The Danish immunologist Niels Jerne, for example, described how he “discovered the immune theory of selection while he was crossing a bridge in the middle of the night”. He was also noticeably amoral in his dealings with women, driving one wife to suicide and then marrying a glamorous “trophy partner who helped him remain the centre of attention”. And he is far from the only ambitious male scientist for whom “sexual partners are chosen strategically”, whether for their beauty, organisational abilities or pipetting skills.
Other techniques used by scientists for “remaining the centre of attention” include refusing to go to other people’s offices, “emit[ting] strong opinionated statements during discussions” and “often ruthlessly exceed[ing] the time limits of their talk[s]”.
Having examined how science often operates and what accounts for this, Lemaitre’s book offers some strong reasons why we should be concerned.
“Most true (i.e., reliable and reproducible!) discoveries were done in classic laboratories in classic universities”, he notes, and not in the kind of elite institutes where persuasive narcissists manage to get funded, which are “supposed to develop a new type of creative research but are often simply good at consuming large amounts of money”. Areas of research driven by “the collective endeavour of many scientists”, which leads to “continual self-adjustment”, may arrive at “a scientific model that is closer to reality” than those dominated by a single powerful narcissist.
Narcissists often make “charismatic leaders”, admits Lemaitre. These are “usually good for their laboratories and the reputations of their universities, but…are a nuisance at the community level, because they burn up resources, often for self-promotion and public relations”. And gender equality is likely to suffer, given that women “tend to score lower on the narcissistic scale”.
Asked about possible solutions, Lemaitre responds that making “an association between the two terms, narcissism and science, could be an opening that provides better arms to combat many deleterious behaviours currently observed in the academy”.
His book makes a number of general suggestions as well as some more specific ones.
Lemaitre would like science to “try to work with a long-term perspective rather than to follow the hype and hot trends of the moment”. He wants to reform the Nobel prizes, which “fit with the narcissistic vision of science peopled by heroes”, and patents in applied research, which “usually end up in the hands of the last (and not necessarily the most important) link of a long chain”. He can imagine “an independent evaluation agency” developing a “predator factor” to set against “the traditional impact factor” in a two-dimensional scale for assessing scientists. And he even cites a paper with tips on dealing with narcissistic lovers – and shows how some of them could also apply to dealing with narcissistic professors.
So how have colleagues reacted to a book that offers a depressingly macho and Machiavellian image of today’s science? It is still early days, replies Lemaitre, but he has already received “positive feedback…from many female scientists who are usually more sensitive to this issue”.