On Science and Narcissism

We all as scientists have experienced the joy and nervousness of meeting the superstars in our fields. Our palms get sweaty as they walk up to us after a talk, and we either sigh with relief when we’re congratulated on a job well done, or are otherwise crushed when we’re told, in a somewhat offhanded (or quite direct way) about the thousand and one flaws with our current ideas. If we’re presenting data that refutes theirs, then we’re at the risk of suffering through a diatribe during the question session of the talk.

Not all leaders in the field, and certainly not all group heads, fall under the category of what we would call narcissistic. However, the unfortunate reality about our scientific culture means that we are all, if not directly, indirectly acquainted with stories of the sometimes baffling and at times downright rude behavior of some scientists.

For Dr. Bruno Lemaitre, an insect immunologist who was on the team that won the Nobel for its work on Toll receptors, these displays of narcissism became as intriguing as some of the things he was studying at the bench. It is from this inquisitive nature and open-minded approach to researching the researchers that arose his short book titled, “An Essay on Science on Narcissism: How do high-ego personalities drive research in the life sciences?”

For many, the world of academic science seems like a sanctum of objectivity where only hard data drives the progress. But those of us on the inside know that very often, the best scientists don’t become the group heads. From the minute we start graduate school, we are indoctrinated in playing the game; telling a story, selling yourself, and networking are now common terms which have infiltrated the domain of science from the world of business.

So is narcissism good for science? For Bruno, the answer is not so clear. At some extremes, narcissism leads to the bullying, harassment, data duplication and manipulation, and inflated showmanship that hurt scientists, the scientific process, diversity, and our image with the public alike. But in other cases, some of the more subtle aspects of narcissism can push people to work those long hours, to become fascinated with “their,” topic of interest, and to drive forth some amazing fund collection from the public that would otherwise not occur.

If you’ve ever worked in a lab, are thinking of doing so, or have a loved one who does, then this book is a must read for an in-depth look at the culture we work in and the sometimes more-than-colorful characters we have to deal with. If you’re like me, you may have some mixed feelings about the book. On one hand, you will find some eerily familiar descriptions not only of those group heads who drive others up the wall, but also of yourself as a driven scientist. This is perhaps, one of the biggest successes of Bruno’s book: it reminds us that we are all human beings on a continuum of narcissism, and allows us to once again humanize those we are sometimes too quick to demonize. On the other hand, the book contains some sweeping statements and ideas which Bruno himself admits are controversial. But if you can make it through the book without getting too stuck on these, you will find at the end a very uplifting section on the subjectivity and emotion of those of doing science, and an encouraging message to young scientists starting on their own scientific journey.

I leave you with these two questions which Bruno was kind enough to answer in a small interview about the book:

Juan: You talk in your book about the ways in which training a student to be a good and “meticulous,” scientist can be at odds with training a student to succeed in science academia by playing the game of the “narcissistic,” scientist. How do we, as students, recognize and balance the positive aspects of both types of training?

Bruno: When you are trained in a laboratory led by a “meticulous” type of scientist, you are in the best position to learn the standards of your field (methods, rigour…), to develop a critical mind, and to adopt a positive attitude towards the community. The drawback is that this meticulous scientist will not necessarily be the best to propel your career because he is not political enough and does not spend time networking to place his papers in ‘top’ journals…In contrast, a more narcissistic professor might be less competent scientifically and more opportunistic in terms of research topics, but better at promoting his students by conferring them a subtle understanding of the scientific environment…

My feeling is that you should go toward a field of research and professors where you feel attracted and if possible, discuss your choices with others! Actually having a good understanding of the social environment of the lab or the institute can be helpful to succeed because it allows taking the perspective of the other members community. For instance, novice scientists are often attracted by the flashy laboratories led by super charismatic (often narcissistic) scientists. The disappointment can be strong, notably when they leave the lab after several years of hard work without any publication. Studies regularly show that narcissistic individuals are more attractive at first acquaintance, but that the fascination decreases over time. The primary attraction is largely due to their self-confidence, which evokes competence and passion…

Juan: To what extent and at what stage do the institutes and funding bodies have a responsibility for intervening in cases where narcissism becomes detrimental to those around the scientist? How do we create a culture that rewards “meticulous,” science and at the same time holds extreme narcissists accountable for their unethical behavior?

Bruno: Narcissism is a personality construct which has already been associated, in the private sector (finance, banking, politics), to unethical behaviours and to reduced participation [in] communal activities…In the book, I speculate that narcissism is also associated with misconducts in science (biased reviewing, exaggerated scientific claim, frauds). Self-centered, unethical individuals can easily take advantage within the scientific community since most activities (reviewing, data production) hinge on the assumption that scientists behave ethically. In addition, there is little sanction against fraud and no control at all of the evaluation process…So far, scientists and heads of universities have mostly chosen to hide misconduct problems to protect their institution…It seems to me that nowadays the scientific institution has lost its connection with truth while running for money and public recognition…It is clear that universities are not prepared to deal with fraud…In general, higher transparency in various processes could have a most positive consequence…

In the book, I discuss a number of propositions to combat some of the deleterious consequences of narcissism and they revolve around the same points: remain closer to the reality of science (do not look for the buzz), reduce the influence of the media, promote long-term evaluations notably with retrospective analysis, look at productivity and not production, and increase the penalties against misconducts…In conclusion, the combat against the damage of narcissism and the reestablishment of a trusty community will be slow and long. But there is hope for progress!

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Fátima Sancheznieto

Dr. Fátima Sancheznieto, PhD has recently completed her postdoctoral training at the UW-Madison school of medicine, where she studied the environmental cues important for blood stem cell formation during development. Fátima was trained in peer support by the Oxford University counseling center and since then has advocated for systemic and cultural changes to improve the mental health and training environments of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. She has served on a working group for the Next Generation Researchers Initiative at the National Institutes of Health and is currently the President of Future of Research, a nonprofit organization that advocates and empowers early career researchers. Her current research focuses on studying the training environments of early career researchers

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