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How Bad Institutional Support Cost Douglas Prasher a Nobel Prize

On December 10th, several esteemed individuals will receive Nobel Prizes in one of six disciplines ranging from physics to world peace. It is an opportunity to celebrate the outstanding contributions they have made to their disciplines. But instead of telling another success story, I want to talk about the story of one person, Douglas Prasher, who was close to a prize, but ultimately failed to receive it.

Prasher quit his research before he was up for tenure and passed his findings and materials along to other scientists, who eventually won the Nobel Prize from the work. An article about Prasher explains that he failed to receive the Nobel Prize due to a combination of “bad luck” and “bad networking.” The author explains how Prasher didn’t have a “‘Goddammit, you’re not going to stop me’ attitude,” and didn’t have the “strength” to keep working on his research when “very few people cared about what [he] was doing.” That, combined with funding trouble, a belief he would not receive tenure, depression, and “bad luck”, led Prasher to quit his faculty position at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and eventually leave academia until recently.*

Despite his return to science, some media have still positioned Prasher as solely responsible for his lack of Nobel Prize. But is this situation really all Douglas Prasher’s “fault,” and his alone?

Prasher was not motivated to keep working on his research when no one at his home institution seemed to care about it. I see how one could argue that this lack of “strength” was detrimental to Prasher’s research career. Being able to persevere even when the future is uncertain is important for innovation and discovery. But I don’t see Prasher’s “failure” as entirely his; his institution and his mentors are responsible as well. One of Prasher’s mentors even says: “He’s the kind of person who really needed a facilitator-type person or organization to say, ‘Look, I think you’re doing a great job.’ ”

Science perpetuates a culture that true researchers are independent and work purely for the pursuit of knowledge. Mentorship in academia can be very hands off, with mentors happy to assist, but only when approached. Certainly there were other faculty and mentors of Prasher’s that cared about him, but those people may not have seen it as their job to provide help without being asked. At best, this attitude comes from the desire to allow people to grow and learn how to ask for help. But sometimes this approach is too passive — it becomes a way to avoid dealing with challenging situations, placing the blame on an individual when that individual has in fact been let down by the very people who were supposed to support them. Adequate mentorship requires balance — a mentor doesn’t need to solve problems for their mentees, but they do need to take the time to ask how they are doing and how their research is going. Most importantly, mentors should offer to help without being asked.

When I hear about someone like Douglas Prasher — someone that needs positive feedback and institutional support — I don’t think that they are weak; I think that they care deeply about doing work that matters to other people. Science needs more of these people. Imagine how much more Douglas Prasher could have discovered if he had been truly supported by his peers and his institution. Imagine how much better our world would be if we had all the contributions of the people who leave science because they could not keep going by themselves. It’s time institutions start recognizing their roles in enabling people like Douglas Prasher to thrive, and for the media to reflect that.

* Fortunately for Douglas Prasher, the press attention he received after not receiving the Nobel Prize did have a positive impact. Four years after Prasher failed to receive the prize, he restarted his research career at UCSD as a staff research associate in the lab of one of the Nobel Prize recipients, Roger Tsien.