October 5, 2023 - 1:00pm

Universities tend to get a bad press these days. But the annual Nobel Prize announcement season, now underway, is usually an exception, as the public is again reminded of the wonderful things their staff (for it is usually their staff who win) have been doing for the improvement of the human condition and the furthering of knowledge.

The University of Pennsylvania’s press team could thus have been forgiven for seeking to make as much as possible of the fact that the two winners of this year’s Nobel in Physiology or Medicine, whose research enabled the development of the now-famous mRNA vaccines, are both professors at their institution.

But their bragging press release was met with swift heckling on a grand scale. For Katalin KarikĂł, the Hungarian-American biochemist who shares half of the prize, was shabbily treated by Penn, which refused to offer her a permanent position, demoted her, and paid her a derisory salary (the university might have made as much as $1,7 billion from their ownership of the intellectual property rights associated with this research) while she carried out her world-changing research.

Eventually, she was forced out after being told that she was “not of faculty quality” because of her failure to secure research grants, among other things.

KarikĂł, for her part, has often spoken about the treatment she received, with great equanimity but without glossing over the ugly details. But she is far from being the first scientist whose field-changing contributions led them to a career dead end. In 2008, when three scientists received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, the world was surprised to discover that Douglas Prasher, a fourth scientist whose work was critical to their success, had been driven out of academia and was reduced to driving a shuttle bus for a car dealership in Alabama for $8.50 an hour. Like KarikĂł, he had been unable to secure enough research funding, the death knell of many academic careers.

Some will point out that not even university administrators are equipped with the gift of clairvoyance. Resources are limited, and less successful scientists have to be weeded out. The ability to obtain grants and to publish in certain journals are standard indicia of academic achievement, and neither Karikó nor Prasher had been very successful at these activities. On this view, the fact that their work turned out to be important later — in one case almost existentially so for humanity — is a happy accident, but not in and of itself a sign that the system is broken.

The problem is that many no longer believe that top journals and grant-making bodies are very good gatekeepers of excellence. Anyone who has worked in research knows not only the immense amount of time involved in submitting articles for publication and grant applications, but the often grossly unfair review processes and arbitrary nature of the decisions, which are not infrequently based on their degree of faddishness and good marketing. The fact that the acceptance and rejection decisions are usually made by other researchers in the same field only seems to intensify the sense that the entire system is broken.

Some grant-making bodies have even taken to awarding monies on a semi-random basis, allocating them by lottery among all those whose proposals have passed a first-stage screening process. The idea is that since it is so difficult to distinguish between the respective merits of projects beyond a certain level, the fairest and most time-saving solution is to not try at all.

Now that she has won the Nobel, KarikĂł will be spoken of in hushed tones. But the fact that her success only came in spite of the university which wanted her out, as a result of a particularly resilient personality and a fantastical amount of self-belief, should give us pause.

Yuan Yi Zhu is an assistant professor at Leiden University and a research fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford.