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HOW DO RESEARCH SCIENTISTS BECOME VERY FAMOUS?

 

How to Win a Supreme Prize in Science!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)
What does it take to Win a Big Prize in Science?     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

            Not all good research scientists advance to become famous, and almost all famous researchers do not achieve the highest honor of winning a Nobel Prize [1] or a Kavli Prize [2].  These facts make it seem rather mysterious how a scientist does achieve enough renown to be awarded one of those supreme honors.  What is it that makes a research scientist become famous? 

            Working scientists traditionally become acclaimed by their peers (i.e., other scientists in their field of study) primarily on the basis of one or more distinctive characteristics: (1) their experimental  findings achieve a breakthrough in research progress, thereby causing a dramatic shift of direction for many subsequent studies, (2) they resolve a long-standing research controversy, (3) they develop a new theory or concept that comes to have an expanding influence on the work of other researchers, or, (4) they invent and develop a new piece of research instrumentation or a new process for analysis of specimens.  These individuals, unlike the great bulk of ordinary research scientists, seem to have much good luck and are not so perturbed by the usual practical research problems with time and money; in one word, very famous scientists usually appear to be “blessed”.  These generalizations seem true for all the different branches of science, and are valid for scientists in numerous different countries. 

The Biggest Prizes in Science

            Only a very small handful of scientists are awarded the highest honors in science, a Nobel Prize [1] or a Kavli Prize [2].  There are many other famous scientists besides those few winners!  Some scientists are so ambitious that they undertake some of their experimental studies specifically to acquire a big prize; however, winning one of these awards is well-known to partly depend on circumstances beyond their control, such as being in the right place at the right time, succeeding with their research project to produce a widely hoped for result (e.g., creating a cure for some disease), or, working in a large field of study where many other researchers are active.  In addition, it is widely suspected that earning one of these top science prizes also depends upon certain unofficial qualifications, such as who you know, who dislikes you, and what area of science you are working with.  There can be no doubt that the awardees are fully deserving and are great scientists. 

            Readers can gain a much larger understanding about what it takes to win one of these elite honors by viewing some of the many fascinating video interviews with winners on the internet websites for the Nobel Prize (http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/ ).  These excellent videos examine the life and work of very famous scientists, both in modern times and from the last century.  Other videos present explanations of why their research work was judged to be so very important; corresponding written material is available for the Kavli Prize (http://www.kavliprize.no/seksjon/vis.html?tid=61429 ).  I have personally seen many of these and very highly recommend them to all non-scientists, as well as to younger scientists. 

The Path to Fame and Fortune in Science

            The path to fame and fortune in scientific research often is a progression of steps leading from local to national and then to international renown.  These steps reflect the formation of an enlarging network of other research scientists who are aware of the ambitious scientist, and have respect and admiration for what he or she is doing in the laboratory; eventually, the network expands so that even teachers, students, and various officials all become quite aware of this scientist.  Another mark of progressing towards fame and fortune involves receipt of more and more invitations to speak, to write, and to participate in science events at diverse locations around the world.  This advancement can be recognized by appointments to serve on committees of national organizations and editorial boards for science journals; in addition, progress also is shown by invitations to author review articles, and by receipt of public recognition within descriptive news reports in important general science journals such as Science and Nature.   Professional reputation usually moves in parallel to achievement of these hallmarks. 

            Common signs of success and fame in research scientists are achievement of some breakthrough experiment or invention, enlargement of lab personnel and research budget due to success with the research grant system, and widely acknowledged mastery in one’s field of science.  These hallmarks increase the reputation of research scientists.  For many good scientists, a very wonderful major honor is simply getting their research grants renewed, so they then are no longer required to work only on projects lasting for 3-5 years.  Nobel Laureates often, but not always, have success in dealing with the research grant system.  In addition to all the glory of winning one of the largest science prizes, there also can be some undesired consequences, such as too much attention, too many new demands for time, and, difficulty in maintaining the awardee’s extremely elevated status. 

            With regard to fortune, certain universities are notorious for paying their junior faculty only a very meager salary, but that changes dramatically when they advance in rank.  Professional scientists in academia and industry become financially comfortable, but do not usually consider themselves to really be rich.  Some university scientists do become very wealthy by starting one or more new small businesses centered on their expertise, creativity, and inventions; industrial scientists can receive bonuses for key contributions in enabling some new or improved product to be produced and marketed.  By the time of retirement, scientists usually have good savings and are entitled to full retirement benefits. 

Comments for Non-Scientists about Reputations and Awards

            Non-scientist readers should try to understand that a renowned and very appreciated faculty scientist at a college or small university might be very highly honored locally, and deservedly so, but could have little national renown and no international reputation.  Some other famous scientist working at a prestigious very large university might be more appreciated nationally and internationally, than locally.  My message here is that the amount of “success and renown” is relative; researchers do not have to become a Nobel Laureate or a Kavli Prize awardee in order to be recognized as being a famous and excellent scientist.   

            Some readers will wonder about whether a young scientist could direct all their professional efforts towards winning a big science prize, and succeed in this ambition?  That is possible in theory, but is very, very unlikely in practice.  Even if a researcher earned a doctorate at Harvard, was a Postdoc at Berkeley and Basel, achieved tenure at Columbia University (New York), and was good with both politics and people, there is no guarantee that this scientist will receive one of these very large honors.  There simply are too many unknowns and too many personalities involved to make receipt of a Nobel Prize or Kavli Prize anything other than very uncertain and doubtful.  In fact, some really outstanding research scientists do not receive the supreme award that they so clearly deserve [3].  I believe that it is good for scientists to be ambitious and to strive to win a big prize, but the simple fact is that very few excellent and famous researchers achieve this highest honor.  

 Concluding Remarks

            Many research scientists in academia and industry work very hard to achieve excellence and to be appreciated by their peers, students, and employer, and by the public.  There is no single path to becoming labeled as a famous scientist, and the route always contains many hurdles and frustrations.  When all is said and done, it always is internally satisfying if a mature scientist regards themself as being successful, even if they also have some human defects or run into insurmountable problems.  Self-satisfaction and peer recognition indeed are very big rewards for doing an excellent job in science and research. 

 

[1]  The Nobel Prize, 2014.  876 Nobel Laureates since 1901.   Available on the internet at:
http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/index.html  .

[2]  The Kavli Prize, 2014.  The Kavli Prize – Science prizes for the future.   Available on the internet at:
http://www.kavliprize.no/artikkel/vis.html?tid=27868 .

[3]  E. Westly, 2008.   No Nobel for you: Top 10 Nobel snubs.   Available on the internet at:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/slideshow.cfm?id=10-nobel-snubs .

 

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