Katalin Karikó, status in academia and lost scientific discoveries

The status game in academia probably comes at a significant social cost

Reading time: 2 min.

The 2 October 2023, Katalin Karikó received a (well-deserved) Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work on mRNA. Despite the scientific importance of her work, she was demoted in 1995 and forced to retire from UPenn in 2013 because, and I quote, she “was not of faculty quality”. UPenn trying to take credit for her award is not going well on social media.

In a recent podcast interview shared by Per Engzell on Bluesky, she explains how her lack of status made it harder for her to get funding and institutional support for her research:

I have to say, Joe, that recently there have been more papers about me than I have ever published. And they are trying to identify why I never got the money, why [funding bodies] didn’t give this proposal money.

One interesting thing was published about that. There is a “centre” where the money, the fame, is; most likely your proposal gets funded because it’s on the most favourable topic. Maybe today, RNA is [most favourable]. If you are working with mRNA, maybe that’s the centre there.

And then there are people in the periphery. There is no fame, there is no money, no nothing there. The only thing in the periphery is freedom. You can do what you like to do, what you feel is important.

Here’s what a proposal is: why they should give me money. And they should question that. “She came from university nobody knew about.” “She never had a mentor who was famous.”

And somehow it gravitates always to the same people, same circle. They get published there, they get the money. And that’s another explanation: I was not famous enough or didn’t have anybody who would support me in a way that somebody that’s a famous and well-established scientist stands behind you and says, “Oh, look at this, it’s good.”

You know, our [2005] paper had to be discovered by scientists at Harvard. In 2011, they published. That’s when people started to pay attention — when they used it to generate induced pluripotent cells, stem cells.

The horrendous experience of Katalin Karikó makes me wonder how many major scientific discoveries we have lost because of this status game in academia. Probably a lot, if I had to guess. Including in economics.