Q & A with the Author

Your view of the competitive and ego-driven nature of scientific research in your book, PRIZE FIGHT: The Race and the Rivalry to be the First in Science may be considered controversial.  How would you summarize it?

The scientist is generally viewed as detached, objective, dispassionate.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Scientists are as subject to pride, jealousy, guile, and ambition, just like the rest of us.  The joy of discovery, the exaltation of uncovering a law of nature, while a powerful motivation, is not enough.  Scientists covet recognition for their work.  Richly textured human dramas swirl around pivotal discoveries in the fundamental drive for the establishment of priority and credit.

In your other books, you have previously uncovered other themes that run through the history of medical and scientific advances, connecting the dots to highlight a pattern.  Tell us briefly about these.

I devised and edited a series of medical books dealing with iatrogenic complications—those arising, for example, from surgery, drugs, and hospitalizations.  These constitute a major source of morbidity and mortality, but unfortunately are generally neither acknowledged nor discussed by physicians. Another book, HAPPY ACCIDENTS, designed for the general reader as well as the scientific/medical community, uncovered the prominent role of serendipity, that is, of unexpected chance in four areas of discoveries: antibiotics, chemotherapy, psychotropics, and cardiovascular advances.

It seems that not only the general public but also the scientific and medical communities themselves are unaware of the vast role of competitiveness, rivalry, and misconduct in scientific research.  How did you become interested in the allocation of credit?  Why did you write PRIZE FIGHT?

In my previous position as Chair of Radiology at a medical school, I gave an appointment as Research Professor to a scientist who was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.  His contribution was bitterly challenged by a senior researcher who had worked at a nearby medical school.  Because I knew all the nuances of this drama intimately, it provides a unique insight into the tempest of scientific research and the struggle for credit.  This set me on a quest involving intense archival research and numerous interviews to understand the role of these factors and their contribution and negative consequences to advances in the past century.  I was amazed at the findings.

You unveil fundamental motivation and emotional responses of scientific researchers. Why is the issue of credit so important?

To be recognized for an accomplishment is a primal need.  Leon Lederman, a Nobel laureate, once quipped: “Yes, Virginia, scientists love recognition, but only since Pythagoras”. Priority is the capstone.  In a winner-take-all society, to be first is to qualify for recognition and rewards—in an academic setting, funding, promotion, tenure, salary, and status.  To be second is to be forgotten.

PRIZE FIGHT deals with many instances of conflicts and disputes, often acrimonious and long lasting. What are major examples?

I recount two central narratives.  The first involves Selman Waksman, an internationally renowned scientist at Rutgers University. Waksman began a screening program for antibiotics derived from soil microbes. Albert Schatz, a young graduate student in Waksman’s laboratory, uncovered a new antibiotic, streptomycin, proved to be the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis.  This discovery was hailed as a major life-saving advance. This wonder drug, along with penicillin, opened the antibiotic era. Schatz was the senior author of the reports and shared the patent with Waksman, who nevertheless undertook a series of stratagems to marginalize Schatz. Waksman viewed Schatz as “my hands, my tools” in his own fundamental research. In an unprecedented move, Schatz sued Waksman.  He was then blacklisted by the scientific community and fled to Chile with his family. Waksman was awarded the Nobel Prize.  Schatz struggled for fifty years to assert his claim.

The second narrative involves my colleague, Paul Lauterbur, a physical chemist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.  Lauterbur had an epiphany that transformed a basic technique used by chemists and physicists—nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR)—into a clinical diagnostic method now employed worldwide: magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI has become a household term. Today it is a billion-dollar industry. Lauterbur was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2003.

These facts alone do not suggest the underlying fiery dispute that raged for thirty years around the development of the MRI.  Raymond Damadian, a physician-researcher at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, had published the seminal paper that first directed the attention of chemists to the vast medical potentials of NMR.  Lauterbur cited this report in his grant applications for funding but chose not to cite it in his first paper introducing the procedure’s imaging capability to the scientific community.  Damadian became convinced that Lauterbur was exploiting his work with a sense of injustice for thirty years, finally in a series of newspaper advertisement worldwide declaiming against the Nobel committee’s decision.

What are the positive and negative consequences of the competitiveness?

Nothing sharpens a scientist’s drive for priority more than the realization that he is in a race with another researcher.  Rivalry may provide the driving force to achievement.  On the other hand, the pressures may lead to the dark side of science, namely fraud.  This explains the recent explosion of cases of scientific misconduct.

Has this had an effect on the evolving image of scientists?

In PRIZE FIGHT, I discuss books that have popularized the scientific endeavor over the twentieth century that trace the way idealism yields to self-interest and expediency, and collegiality and self-sacrifice are transformed into brutal competitiveness and arrogant ambition.  Further, recent movies and plays raise the public’s awareness of some of these developments.

It’s often said that science is not only self-governing but also self-correcting. Does not peer review play a major role in this?

Peer review is irreplaceable, but its flaws are being increasingly recognized.  In breeding conformity of thinking, it stifles innovation.  It reinforces dogma, thus fostering resistance to accept an idea as “ahead of its time”.  The true value of significant contributions has been difficult to assess, notably illustrated by several Nobel-winning advances whose initial papers were rejected.  Indeed, there are a number of cases deserving of the Nobel Prize that went unrewarded.  And peer review functions poorly as a screen against fabrication of data.

What specific steps can you recommend?

Recognizing human nature as a constant, I offer several recommendations for reform in PRIZE FIGHT.  These involve awareness of these issues, consistency in attribution of authorship, equitable and impartial peer review with openness to innovative ideas, and criteria for determination of credit and acknowledgement of contributions by others.

Why is it important for us to know about these themes in scientific and medical research?

Simply put, to lead to more effective science policy and a better use of resources in the research enterprise.  It benefits us greatly to understand the true dynamics of the discovery process and attribution of credit for many reasons.  Because we are affected so directly by scientific advances.  Because failure to acknowledge the prospects of an advance is often costly and unproductive.  Because we need to be sound in our judgment of the allocation of funding and resources.  Because profound benefits and consequences to society may be at stake.