Paragon of science or crackpot? Life after winning a Nobel
July 15, 2010
The public generally views winning the Nobel Prize as reaching the pinnacle of scientific achievement, which raises an awkward question: does that mean it’s inevitably downhill from there? For many laureates, research careers continue on regardless of the level of public recognition. But others take the prestige afforded by the Prize and use it to advance issues that aren’t directly related to their work. The two researchers who were honored for their role in the identification of HIV provide a glimpse into how this plays out in both good and bad ways.
Winning the Nobel Prize affords about the closest thing to celebrity that’s possible in a scientific career and, based on interviews with prize winners (who chose to remain anonymous), it comes with some of the same issues: everyone wants a piece of your time or an endorsement. And some of the laureates take advantage of their new platform, using it to promote things like science and health policies. Many of them stay in the lab, however, some continuing with the same work, others shifting to new projects.
Turning prestige into a public good
The scientists who were honored for their role in the identification of HIV as the causative agent for AIDS, FranÃ§oise BarrÃ©-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, are both still doing things that are somewhat related to their original discovery, but the difference between the two could not be more striking.
BarrÃ©-Sinoussi has clearly taken the platform provided by the Nobel and used it as an opportunity to develop research and clinical links within the developing world. In her talk at the Lindau Meeting, she described how the discovery of HIV was an interdisciplinary effort from the start. Clinicians were essential in recognizing a distinct immune disorder, and the isolation of HIV built on earlier work by biologists, who had only recently identified the first human retrovirus.
Since then, many disciplines have contributed. The origin and evolution of the virus have been elucidated, and its attack on the immune system teased apart. Biochemists solved the structure of HIV’s key enzymes, allowing chemists to synthesize effective drugs. But, despite being a virologist by training, BarrÃ©-Sinoussi ended up making many major contributions to public health. She argued that an effective HIV program in the developing world requires local participation; providing evidence on-site is essential for inducing the political leadership to act.
Her ability to build these sorts of partnerships has helped ensure that nearly half the patients in the developing world that need antiviral medications now receive them, and she’s clearly pushing for further progress. There’s little doubt that the prestige conveyed by the Nobel Prize has helped open doors and establish credibility for her. (You can read more about her and her work in this interview.)
And at the other end of the spectrum…
At the time BarrÃ©-Sinoussi was doing her part in identifying HIV, she worked with Luc Montagnier. He has also lent his prestige to a number of public health organizations set up to combat AIDS, and continues to run a lab. But, based on the talk he gave at Lindau, his lab work is clearly running towards the fringes of mainstream science.
The talk was a summary of a paper he published in an obscure journal that seems to have limited peer review. The work grew out of his studies of immune cells, which frequently suffer from contamination by a type of bacteria called Mycoplasma. Despite repeated attempts to filter out all cells from the media, Montagnier and his colleagues found that, despite their apparent absence in other assays, the bacteria just kept showing up when the media was used to grow immune cells.
At this point, a careful scientist would start trying to nail down all possible sources of contamination and, if the effect persisted, look for a known biological mechanism that might explain the appearance of Mycoplasma. Montagnier, instead, seems to have wandered off the scientific ranch, and was last seen heading in the direction of homeopathy.
Montagnier seemed to think that DNA was somehow involved in reestablishing the Mycoplasma growth, but said that the effect seemed to resist treatment by enzymes, including DNAse, RNAse, and proteases, that should normally chew up any biological materials. Magnetic fields, heat, and freezing, in contrast, did. Various experiments were described that suggested dilution altered effectiveness; others showed that the same effects could be seen with other pathogens. And then, for reasons that were anything but obvious, radiofrequency radiation made an appearance. Here, Montagnier was clearly engaging in leaps that were not logical, and treating some things as facts that I suspect a physicist might be very skeptical of.
By the time he was wrapping up, there was a model in which dilute solutions of DNA stably maintained genetic information through interactions with background electromagnetic radiation, and could use other cells to turn that back into an intact organism. The weirdness of the model, however, wasn’t nearly as disturbing as the path that took him there. The reasoning Montagnier used to reach his conclusions seemed identical to that used by those who study homeopathy. Obvious and simple explanations have to be skipped in order to pursue obscure ones, things that haven’t been demonstrated have to be assumed, and findings that have been subjected to repeated testing have to be ignored. It’s hard to describe the work as anything other than crackpot.
A Nobel may be what you make of it
If Montagnier has slipped off the edge of respectable science, he certainly wouldn’t be the first laureate to do so; a few other names figured prominently in our discussions with other attendees after his talk. To an extent, it’s a demonstration of the caveat that past performance is no indication of future results. But it’s also an important warning to anyone who might be tempted to pay undue deference to ideas simply because they come from a prestigious source: it’s important to pay attention to what’s being said, not simply who is saying it.
But lots of laureates continue to do good work, both scientific and otherwise. And, in these cases, the Prize can open doors and provide a degree of credibility they might otherwise need to establish through more arduous means. In short, it can be a tool that makes getting things done a bit easier. And, in BarrÃ©-Sinoussi’s case, she has used that tool to great effect to improve global health.
This post has been written by John Timmer on July 14, 2010 7:33 PM couresy of arstechnica.com.