Medicine And The Media

The politics of scientific reputation

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 05 October 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:888

    There can be few attributes more influential than one's reputation. It can make (or break) a career by helping (or otherwise) to ease promotion, capture funding, attract coworkers, gain media attention, and increase peer approval. All of these serve to keep up momentum in a career. Although important, reputations are difficult to quantify, and their foundations are often elusive. Scientific Reputations, the final programme in a four part series investigating political aspects of science, seeks to address this.

    The programme takes as its premise the assumption that anybody who gains a Nobel prize in science must have, if nothing else, an outstanding reputation as a scientist. It then asks why Nobel laureates include some whose contribution to scientific discovery has been essentially conceptual rather than concrete and do not include some who seem to have made discoveries so fundamental that they have changed scientific thinking. The programme's example of the conceptual scientist is Kary Mullis, who was awarded the Nobel prize for his discovery of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Among those whose fundamental discoveries went unrewarded by the prize committee are Fred Hoyle, who identified the cosmic processes that forged the elements, and Jocelyn Bell, who discovered pulsars.

    While the programme itself is not always as intellectually rigorous as a scientist might hope, it raises many questions that deserve attention. In an ideal world, it argues, a person's achievements in science should stand apart from his or her personality; often, however, the two cannot easily be separated. Science is a blend of competition, cooperation, and collaboration; how the blend is struck will depend on individual scientists, their circumstances, subjects, and personalities. Those who don't blend risk upsetting the scientific establishment; they also risk losing support and therefore their reputations.

    Fred Hoyle's confrontational stance frequently ruffled establishment feathers, and he may have lost his prize on these grounds. But the scientific establishment has other limitations. As Jocelyn Bell commented, it works a “reward system that runs to male norms,” so inevitably the careers of women in science will be disadvantaged. It is reasonable to assume that members of ethnic minority groups or those working in laboratories or countries away from the centres of the establishment are similarly disadvantaged.

    Although the programme deals with scientific reputations, I imagine the same sorts of considerations must apply to reputations in medicine and other professions. Clearly, the more strongly reputations are forged by others and based on non-professional issues the more they are open to corruption. Building the reputation of an opinion former in order to sell a medicinal product could be an example of such an arrangement. More important, though, must be the undermining or devaluing of reputations for reasons of politics, gender, or race. The programme raises issues that should not be ignored.—JOE COLLIER, reader and consultant in clinical pharmacology, St George's Hospital Medical School, London