Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Is Research Dominated by Narcissists?

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Is Research Dominated by Narcissists?

Article excerpt

A new book considers whether science is led by the self-obsessed. Matthew Reisz reports

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 (pictured inset) 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. …

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