MY first regular article in this column, published two years ago on Oct 23, 2016, was titled Worthy Aspirations for the Nobel. Last year I had also written on the Nobel prizes, which are announced annually in Sweden starting from the first week of October. This year, I am keeping to the Nobel theme as an October tradition. Although there are other prizes with bigger financial rewards, the Nobel prize is still regarded as the most prestigious award in the sciences.
As a developing nation, having a Malaysian one day win a Nobel prize is a milestone to show that we have indeed arrived in the big leagues. If we aspire to one day have our own Nobel laureates, we should perhaps strategise towards that end. Some may argue that such a plan has already been put in place. I would like to counter it by contradicting my earlier statement and say — how can we really plan for such an aspiration? Many, if not all Nobel laureates, have attributed some amount of luck to winning a Nobel prize.
So how do we plan to be “lucky” enough to one day have a Malaysian win a Nobel prize?
Perhaps we can draw inspiration from one particular institution that is well known to be very lucky at winning the Nobel prize — the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, otherwise known as the LMB, in the United Kingdom. For many scientists, especially those in life sciences and medicine, the name LMB is a familiar one. The public may be less aware of the LMB name itself, but will probably be familiar with the many successes of the lab. One of them, is perhaps one of the most iconic images of modern times, the now famous double-helix representation of the DNA molecule.
This year, Sir Gregory Winter’s quarter share of the chemistry prize makes it a consecutive achievement for the LMB. Last year, another LMB scientist, Richard Henderson, had also shared
the chemistry prize for his contributions to the field of cryo-electron microscopy. Sir Gregory is not only an accomplished scientist who had long been tipped to one day win a Nobel, but also an academic researcher who had gone on to become a successful entrepreneur. One of the drugs he is credited with developing rakes in billions of dollars in annual sales.
Although 2017 and 2018 have back-to-back Nobel prizewinners coming from the LMB, 27 scientists associated with the lab have been awarded Nobel prizes. One of them, the late Frederick Sanger, had even won the Nobel prize in chemistry twice, being one of only three persons to have ever won two Nobel prizes in the sciences.
One may argue, institutions such as Harvard University have had even more Nobel prizes.
That may be true. The point here is not in simply having the raw numbers, but to also consider that the LMB is relatively small and younger than many of the universities which have Nobel laureates on their faculties. Is there some secret formula that is making the LMB such a successful factory at producing Nobel laureates?
Having said that, referring to the LMB as a Nobel factory does not do it justice — it implies the application of a brute rote approach to the endeavour of scientific enquiry and knowledge discovery. Such an approach is quite far removed from how the LMB has conducted its operations. Over the years, in addition to its staff consistently winning Nobel prizes, the LMB has perhaps also been consistent in the way that it manages its staff and the science that it does.
The LMB’s lack of a bureaucratic hierarchical structure and the highly collaborative environment that pervades it enables junior postdoctoral scientists and doctoral students to easily interact with Nobel laureates and senior scientists with everyone even being on a first name basis. One thing that I have gleaned from chats with friends and colleagues who have worked at the LMB is that their scientists are required to work on risky and hard to solve problems.
This is not strange because in order to achieve revolutionary discoveries, one must work on very hard science. In order to do risky and hard science, you need smart people who are brave enough to tackle those fundamental questions.
Of course, there are many smart people out there, but the LMB goes further by placing a high level of trust in the scientist — they are basically left alone to carry on with their jobs with minimal intervention. This independence does not mean that the scientists are not accountable for their funding nor are they free of any responsibility when executing their research plans. The trust simply means that they are given the time and space to explore and succeed.
Hard problems can take time to solve. As a result, LMB scientists are not under pressure to constantly publish numerous research papers.
They are instead expected to deliver landmark publications that may even open up new fields. Even if it is a single paper every few years, those papers must provide profound impact in their respective areas. A hard project can take years with the early phases not bearing any fruits, and in understanding such realities, LMB scientists are assessed subjectively on the progress they are making and not evaluated solely on the quantity of papers and patents that they produce.
Strangely, for many, if not all, scientists, hard science is not stressful science. Unfortunately science turns stressful when the reality of scientific enquiry is not appreciated. Discovering new knowledge is not quite the same as building a bridge. Yet, our scientific research is often evaluated and managed in the same way one implements a construction project, with specific milestones set and to be met on pre-determined deadlines. Progress reports are also expected at very short and unrealistic intervals. Unfortunately, true scientific research is not as predictable.
This leads to stressful science and we have witnessed how such unhealthy practices can lead to fraudulent and unethical practices such as plagiarism or data manipulation.
What is just as bad, if not worse, with stressful science is that scientists are then geared towards doing easy science to meet milestones and maintain their productivity indicators. This is perhaps a safe recipe, and encourages a box-ticking culture, but it is probably not going to drive Malaysia towards being lucky enough to one day celebrate its own Nobel prize. With the dawn of a new Malaysia, perhaps it is also time to revamp the way we do our science. The previous method of execution had served its purpose to enable capacity-building over the past 20 years.
As our scientific research capacity matures, we should now look beyond mere evolutions of knowledge and must begin to explore harder problems that can lead to revolutionary discoveries.
To do that, we must change the way we fund and manage scientific research and the scientists who execute the work. A total revamp may not be necessary. Instead small groups can be identified and given the freedom and resources to carry out cutting-edge fundamental science that will extend human knowledge beyond its current frontier. These select groups can be in different fields of research and from different institutions. What is key is that they be trusted and given the independence and space for a chance to succeed. It is also important that we not reinvent the wheel but should first tap into existing capacity, wherever they already are and empower them to be better. With luck, a Malaysian may one day receive that October phone call from Sweden.
Mohd Firdaus Raih is a bioinformatician and molecular biologist currently heading the Centre for Frontier Sciences, Faculty of Science and Technology and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Systems Biology, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia