'To be second is to be forgotten': The competition and backstabbing behind the Nobel Prize

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First aired on Quirks & Quarks (06/10/12)


The Nobel prizes for 2012 were announced this week at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. Every year, achievements are recognized in scientific fields including medicine, physics and chemistry. A Nobel Prize is prestigious, bringing fame and glory, a place in history and, of course, money. But a darker side to the famous awards is chronicled in a new book by Dr. Morton Meyers, a distinguished professor of radiology and medicine at the State University of New York. In Prize Fight: The Race and the Rivalry to be the First in Science, he describes the painful battles and even bitterly contested lawsuits behind some of the greatest Nobel-winning achievements, including research into tuberculosis, AIDS and MRI technology.

Meyers joined Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald on the program recently to discuss the, ah, less noble side of the Nobel prizes. Though it's often the case that Nobel-winning scientists are simply pursuing their curiosity for the betterment of life on Earth, that's not always the whole story. "There's also quite commonly an underlying need for recognition and reward," said Meyers. "What's often pictured by the general public...is that the motivation is mainly to provide new knowledge."

The reality is often less purely altruistic. "Increasingly, it's becoming apparent that scientists have a certain lust for recognition," said Meyers. "They want not only to be able to contribute to humanity but they want -- as do many people -- to be given proper acknowledgement of their contribution and receive any rewards that are forthcoming."

One of the main areas of contention is the question of credit. Scientific discoveries often involve teams of many people who each make a certain contribution, but the Nobel committee recognizes and rewards a maximum of only three people per prize. So who gets the credit? Is it the first person who has the idea? Or is it the person who pointed the idea out to contemporaries for the first time? Or who developed it? Or who illuminated the meaningfulness of the scientific findings? "In virtually every discovery there's a whole host of antecedents that may even date back hundreds of years," said Meyers. "But how is credit distributed? Who gets the authority? In a winner-take-all society, to be first is to reap the reward, and to be second is to be forgotten."

In his book, Meyers tells the stories of some of those who have been forgotten by science history. Research is appropriated, ideas stolen and repackaged, and competition is more rampant than cooperation. "The findings were shocking to me as to the frequency of these occurrences, the intensity of the bitterness that arises, the machinations and occasionally guile and deception that are prevalent behind the curtain," he said. "[I wrote this book] in an attempt to bring this to the attention not only to the scientific community but to the general public as well in the hope that the criteria for priority could be clarified, that resources and funding could be directed more appropriately, that major advances could be recognized as they happen and not languish for 20 years."

Meyers cites the specific example of two scientists who both made important discoveries that led to the widespread medical use of MRI technology. Only one of them was recognized with a Nobel Prize in 2003. The other one took out a series of newspaper ads in an attempt to gain recognition. "This type of public declamation was completely unprecedented," said Meyers. "But I think it's understandable, and there should be some room for appeal or a review of certain Nobel Prize awards."

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