The cult of personality in science

June 23, 2011

It was recently announced that the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation has been renamed the Francis Crick Institute. While the reduction in the alphabet soup of UK research policy is to be applauded, I find the obsession with naming scientific institutes and facilities after famous individuals problematic for science and its relationship with society. It is part of a wider personality cult in science, that is manifest by the emphasis that is given to personal awards like fellowships of the major academies or big international prizes, of which the Nobel prize is probably the best known.

I think that the focus on individuals raises a number of problems:

  • It suggests that advances in science are dependent on the particular insight of special individuals, but the history of science shows that the cultural context within which scientists operate is at least as influential as individual genius. It is the rule, rather than the exception, that new ideas emerge in parallel in multiple places, and the name we associate with discoveries often reflects accidents of history or aptitudes for self-publicity, rather than some unique contribution.
  • The focus on the individual ignores the importance of teams. Almost any major scientific advance is now dependent on a team effort, and while every effective team needs a leader, to single out individuals misses the point and devalues the wider contributions. And even beyond the research team, science progresses through the development of a body of evidence to which many researchers contribute. This is equally relevant to the current focus on delivering impact from research, as pointed out recently by Jack Stilgoe and Alice Bell: impact comes from people and the interactions between them, rather than from journals article or individuals.
  • Perhaps most importantly, the focus on individuals leads to a perception outside of the research community that there are some special characteristics that are needed to be a successful scientist, and can reinforce stereotypes about age, gender or social background. If we want to attract young people into science focusing on the fact that scientific research is an exciting career that is open to many would seem a better strategy than building a cult of ‘special’ individuals.


13 Responses to “The cult of personality in science”

  1. alice Says:

    Reminds me of a great bit in Elizabeth Lean’s ‘Reading Popular Science’ about the way Feynman constructs his character in autobiographical bits of his pop sci writing… links non-fiction renderings like that into the various literary tropes of scientist characters in Roslynn Haynes’ ‘Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature’ (which is recommended if you don’t know it already).

  2. Steven, my first reaction is that I can’t help thinking that ANYTHING is better than UKCMRI! I suppose they could have called it the St Pancras, or something location-based (as with Mill Hill). But, though the point you raise is an interesting one, if anything, I’d argue that science isn’t focussed enough on personality, if public engagement and involvement is the aim. It’s in human nature to focus on individuals: that’s why successful narratives always have a protagonist. It’s how we like to frame things, and I think it’s part of the problem many people have in engaging with science; they need people and personalities to hang it on. But how many scientists can most people name? Albert Einstein, Brian Cox, Stephen Hawking…most people in this country haven’t even heard of Feynman, I’d bet. The *lack* of a variety of visible, successful, engaging role models is a problem. So, contrary to the idea that a focus on individuals reinforces stereotypes, I would argue that the lack of focus on individuals has dehumanised science, and inadvertently made a career in science less enticing.

    • alice Says:

      … but there is a difference between bringing out the people and endorsing an idea of celebrity in science though?

      E.g. the difference between I’m a Scientist and Jamie’s Dream School.

      • I’m A Scientist is amazing – brilliant. Jamie’s Dream School was also brilliant in its own way: it was a clever way to start a national conversation about education. You have to get enough people watching, and distasteful though it might seem, people are engaged through celebrity – that’s why those hideous magazines sell. Is naming a building after Crick “endorsing an idea of celebrity”? As humans, we honour those who are successful, great leaders (or just very rich) by putting their names on our cultural or physical landscape. It’s just what we do. The issue, I think, is one of personality type: Crick couldn’t bear to fail, whether in research or in garnering others’ appreciation of his talents. That’s a very useful personality type to have on your side. Yes, science is full of people who have to be the support act to the main event, just as Wayne Rooney couldn’t play a starring role on the football pitch (and get his lucrative endorsement deals) without the anonymous (and less wealthy) midfielder who makes the pass. The fact that people function in different roles, some more prominent than others, is unavoidable. But it’s the Rooneys of the world that make kids want to become footballers (sigh). So it depends what you want. If you want everyone in science to be accorded equal status, you’re asking for a scenario that is less enticing and interesting to the world outside of science. It’s also fighting against human nature, so good luck with that!

    • alice Says:

      or, saying science is done by people and reducing it to super-stars is different.

    • stevenhill Says:

      I agree that it would be beneficial to have more scientists with public profiles and to tell the stories of science better. But I think that the narratives need to be accurate and not focus on the idea of the heroic lone genius.

  3. Are you kidding me? Science is ALL about personality. Just any of the book-selling, speaking tour promoting and on-tv-bobblehead quantum theorists now touting themselves over the science. They use science as a marketing tool instead of actually practicing it. I don’t mind selling out or padding one’s income. I DO mind when science is bastardized for personal gain. (See quantum mechanics.)

    Until the rest of you hold these bobbleheads accountable, the degradation of science will continue.

  4. Ben Good Says:

    I think the name change is a positive thing. The injection of personality into the building, and science, can only be a good move. I think with the name UKMRCI it would likely have gained a more pleasing colloquial nickname anyway, so why not have a more engaging and identifiable name to start with?

    I also don’t see how celebrity science is such a bad thing either. In everyday culture we are bombarded with people who have gained celebrity through doing nothing which is incredibly annoying. But, science seems to be different, our science celebrities have gained their notoriety through achieving great things (anyone have any examples of the former big brother contestants of the science world?). So, why not celebrate those achievements?

    p.s. I doubt that the naming of the Max Planck institute, Sanger Centre etc has had any negative impact on the work that goes on there, the perceptions of the lab or the perception of science as a whole.

  5. S Says:

    I’m in favor of naming buildings/programs/awards after notable scientists. I think it helps to inspire students and encourages them to learn about the different paths scientists take- this undoubtedly helps them in finding their own way into science. We always need to remind students of the stories behind science… people are what drives science, and they are not cold and anonymous, but lively, sometimes peculiar, and often filled with drama.

    I find it a bit rare to see bigger names fail to mention the group they work with at conferences (or even in print). I suspect that the perception of lone rogue scientists pushing science has weakened in the last 20 years or so. But I could be wrong, being a scientist myself, I’m pretty immersed in the bias of the science community.

  6. Jack Stilgoe Says:

    Great post Steven. The cult of personality is rooted in an age in which individuals could by themselves achieve huge amounts, although historians would I’m sure argue that there are hidden characters (some of whom would be women) behind every Great Man of history. We are now in an era of big science, where the role of the individual is more interesting. My question, at a recent seminar on bog biology, was how we measure excellence in big science. My guess is that big science is something that scientific giants get involved in after they have won their prizes for lone genius – John Sulston leading the Human Genome Project, for example. The IPCC won a collective Nobel Prize, but it was for peace. When are we going to see a big team win a science Nobel?

    • stevenhill Says:

      Thanks, Jack. I agree that the importance of teams is increasing in the delivery of big science, and there are also many hidden contributors in the science of the past. I also think the focus on the individual misses the environment within which individuals operate. At one level this might be the effect of scientific competitors – ideas often develop quickly in response to criticism (one of the positive aspects of peer review?). But there are also wider societal conditions that will influence the development of ideas, so I find it difficult to accept that a single individual is responsible for any advance.

  7. I’m with you here Stephen. I don’t see what it adds to change the name, at least the old one was, I assume, fairly descriptive about what the Centre was about for the ordinary person. I’m keener on ‘doing what it says on the tin’ type names. Unless of course someone rich and famous has paid for it, in which case I suppose that’s part of the deal.

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