Nepotism and Success in Science

Mar 23 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

With the gambler's current favorite of another Bush-Clinton contest on our political horizon, the NYTimes had an article on Sunday titled "Just How Nepotistic Are We"? Letting go, once again, of the fact that this is entirely male-driven data  (but still noting it for future ire), it seems unsurprising that the amount of nepotism is a function of the field.  It is kind of amusing that the main categories in the NYTimes story are politics (high nepotism) and sports (low nepotism). That sports is a meritocracy starts out as an assumption and justification for comparison to politics, but the implicit conclusion is that because nepotism is high in politics, the latter is not meritocratic. Yes, success in major league sports, by and large is a meritocracy. It's just depressing that it's the main example that we can come up with these days.

The only more biased outcome than success in politics is success as a billionaire. Of course, as the article says, identification of success in becoming a billionaire didn't include separating out those who earned the money from those who inherited it. I'm not sure how easy would be to determine who was able to earn a billion on their own, had they inherited it to start with.

The only place that the article touched on science is the Bohr family, where Niels' son Aage also won a Nobel.

Internationally, the greatest father-son, merit-based, same-field accomplishment is probably Niels Bohr’s son Aage matching his father’s Nobel Prize in Physics. But neither the Bohrs nor the Mannings dominated physics or football the way the Bush family dominates American politics.

A male member of the third generation of Bohrs, btw, is a biomedical scientist, and judging from the reports of trainees that emerged from that lab, Bohr-3 was/is a BSD with the best of them.

We've all noticed nepotism in all sorts of places in our professional lives irrespective of field. There is a particular moral / ethical quandary here. Parents (for the most part) love their children. They want to help their children. If one is good at something, one wants to be able to pass that good-at on to the children. If a child shows desire, skill, or aptitude in something, for something, what parent would deny their beloved any help they could give?

Children  (often or sometimes or frequently, I don't want to get into an argument about all the permutations of this) look up to their parents.  Children frequently perceive what their parents do is to be what grown-ups as a group do. Throw in all of the "I need to show them" and "I want to be them" that kids experience, and you have lots of people who want to do what their parents did, never mind that they might be better or happier at something else.

Its incredibly difficult to draw a bright and hard line between work/professional life and home/family life. We have trouble not helping those we love, whether than means a place in our lab for a spouse or partner who made lots of sacrifices along the way for our career, or calling a friend for a summer job for the children we adore.

I have written many times about my mother. She was a full professor albeit in a very different discipline than I am in. But, I became an academic too. There is no question that she helped me. She talked to me about NIH, and about professionalism, and gave me lots of mentoring in a day and age when I was not going to get that anywhere else. We have the same (not common) last name, and people who knew her ask me if we're related. The fact that I look very much like her adds to that.

Do I feel like I earned all of what I have? Hell yes. I do not think anyone ever gave me a good score on a proposal because of her. Our last name isn't Bohr or Einstein, and the fields were separate enough, and she wasn't famous enough, that anyone would just know. But I surely got more than someone, particularly a female someone of my age, got from their lawyer parents. I still remember in grad school a friends saying "you are so lucky that your parents want you to be a scientist". My thought at the time that I would give anything for a big hole in the ground to open and swallow my hugely embarrassing and irritating parents.

So what do I do about this now? I keep my eyes open for the trainees who don't have what I had. I do my damnest to pick people for my lab that are excellent in the ways I think excellence is important. But.... I am well aware that not everyone has  advantages. I am well aware that I, as does everyone in our society, have some blinders, some prejudices and biases. I try and reach  out to people who are not like me, people who didn't have my advantages,  and people I might overlook. I cannot and will not be their parent. But I can look at what my mother gave to me and pass it on to someone else.


PS: I thank Beatrix Kiddo @tehbride             for inspiration.

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