‘Narcissism in Science’ Part 3: Solutions?

(December 15th, 2016) Bruno Lemaitre, Professor of Genetics at EPFL, recently published a book about narcissism in science. In this 3-part interview, LT reporter, Jeremy Garwood, talked with him about his findings and how they might improve our scientific outlook.

Are there any positive effects from aspects of narcissistic behaviour? 

Narcissism can have a positive influence in science because the need for power can boost the motivation for success. In addition, narcissists are strongly energised when they start to get public recognition, and this can clearly boost their motivation after an initial success. It promotes passion and self-absorption, two key elements important in science. It can also promote originality and, when the narcissism is not too strong, it can be associated with good leadership. 

Can narcissists learn to control their narcissism?

It is not so easy for ‘grandiose narcissists’ because they feel that they are “great” - they are less willing to change and often externalise their problems to others! Nevertheless, when they recognise that their personality is a source of problems, some psychological studies suggest that they can change. An important point to take into consideration is the role played by the followers, and more globally by the community that surrounds the narcissists. Narcissists are strongly dependent on the regard of others, fitting the expectations of their public. If the majority of scientists showed their disapproval of the showman “save the world”-type of scientist, then this type of scientist might disappear. As individuals, we can exert a strong power by directing our ‘eyes’ to what we really value. If everybody stopped reading celebrity magazines, celebrities would disappear!

You say that most true (i.e. reliable and reproducible) discoveries were done in classic laboratories in classic universities, not in the kind of elite institutes where persuasive narcissists manage to get funded. In such institutions, they are “supposed to develop a new type of creative research but are often simply good at consuming large amounts of money”. Areas of research driven by the collective endeavour of many scientists may arrive at “a scientific model that is closer to reality” than those dominated by a single powerful narcissist. You discuss a number of propositions to combat some of the deleterious consequences of narcissism. In your final chapter, you suggest that we learn to recognise narcissistic scientists in order to bring them under the control of the community?
Reading my book and works by experts on the topic, scientists can better understand the self-enhancement strategy of narcissists. Nevertheless, the combat against narcissism remains difficult. Firstly, because this often requires surrendering a personal advantage for the benefit of the whole community. For example, a dean can refuse to recruit a “star scientist” with high impact factor publications but a questionable reputation, and instead favour more reasonable scientists with a higher ethical sense. While this might decrease the “visibility” of the university, it is positive at the collective level. Not easy!

A second solution is to resist short-term fashions, because narcissists are more convincing upon first acquaintance. This is a bit like defending the value of an old and, at first sight, boring spouse against a new sexy, younger and appealing partner who might jump into your life. How do we resist the attraction of the latter even when we know she will not provide long-term happiness! For instance, many traditional scientists are starting to recognise the overselling “save the world”-scientists who run their science like a start-up company. They are getting weary of their never-ending promises. Instead, they prefer the classical (‘boring’) way of doing research. In fact, this use of promises also masks a self-enhancement strategy. Narcissists rapidly adjust to fit the expectations of their public. A limitation of this approach is that science does not exist as an island outside the society, and narcissistic scientists have strong persuasive power outside science with editors, politicians and journalists.

A third way to combat narcissism is to better reveal the reality of the science behind the show. There is a fight for patents and the influence of the so-called ‘Matthew effect’ that tends to give all the prizes to the most ‘visible’ scientists. Yet despite the mediatic buzz, we know little about how the discovery was made, and the role of less visible actors, such as research students. It would be interesting if we could reconstitute the steps of this discovery by interrogating and confronting all the actors, including those individuals lower in the hierarchy. This might reveal that there are many more actors involved and the community could subsequently decide to choose their preferred heroes. The point is not to eliminate legendary figures but to reveal the broader role of the community. This could also help to fight against the ‘winner-takes-all’ attitudes that prevail in science.

A fourth point is to increase the severity of punishments for misconducts. The fight against misconducts will work only if all the universities play the game. But universities are mostly obsessed with their ranking, and disclosing misconducts is not good for their promotion. So let’s imagine that universities have to pay a penalty of $100,000 for each retracted paper in a trophy journal! Or what if, instead of investing so much money in self-promotion, grant agencies decide to really analyse who does what in the scientific system, with personal investigations of long-term productivity and ethical behaviours. The fact is that the scientific community is mostly interested by its own interests: getting the maximum money from the government; searching for truth is a pretext. It is only after the severe consequences of the financial crisis in 2008, that initiatives to fight secret banking were launched, mostly because the US government took action. I am very supportive for the establishment of an international society that could regulate science (including journals) at a higher level. This could also be a way for scientists to defend certain human values above the short-term and local interests (of universities, countries) and to combat misconducts.

To conclude, I think we need to remain closer to the reality of science (do not listen to 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. The combat against the damage of narcissism and the re-establishment of a trustworthy community will be slow and long. But there is hope for progress!

Interview: Jeremy Garwood

Last Changes: 01.20.2017