The cult of personality in science

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.