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Nobel Prize winners network widely and commercialise their discoveries

The era of the lone genius is over. Research teams are increasingly behind today’s breakthroughs, which not least makes it difficult to award Nobel Prizes to one, two or a maximum of three prize-winners.
“At the same time, we are facing a major challenge regarding how research is to be funded”, says researcher Pauline Mattsson.
2429 nobelprisutdelningen 2018
Image: Nanaka Adachi © Nobel Media AB

There is no magic formula for who is going to win a Nobel Prize, but there are many common denominators among Nobel Prize winners. One of the researchers focusing on this area is Pauline Mattsson, associate senior lecturer in Research Policy at the School of Economics and Management. Together with others, such as research colleague Katarina Nordqvist, she has shown that the majority of Nobel Prize winners in physiology and medicine build bridges across existing networks to a greater extent than others and that they have been involved in starting companies and commercialising their results.

“However, the Nobel Prize winners are rarely driving forces in the patent process or in start-up companies. They let others handle it and stay in academia”, says Pauline Mattsson.

Together with Katarina Nordqvist, she has collected a large volume of quantitative data, and has also met and interviewed some 30 Nobel Prize winners in physiology and medicine. Several articles are being written and perhaps in time there will be a book based on elements of the extensive material.

It is an old, harsh truth that LU lacks Nobel Prize winners. However, Pauline Mattsson does not see it that way. She considers that there should not be so much emphasis on which university a Nobel Prize winner works at when they receive the prize.

“It’s not so peculiar that Nobel Prizes are awarded to researchers at Harvard and Cambridge, as they have been recruited there during their career. The important aspect is where they did their breakthrough research. It’s a little like the world of professional footballers. When they start to become well known they are recruited by someone else”, says Pauline Mattsson.

She includes for Lund University Arvid Carlsson (2000), Sune Bergström and Bengt Samuelsson (1982) who received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. Other prize-winners with a Lund background are economist Bertil Ohlin (1977) and physicist Manne Siegbahn (1924). They all received the Nobel Prize after they had left Lund.

“Lund University should take more pride in educating future Nobel Prize winners. In addition, it’s easy to focus a lot on a single individual, but there are probably researchers in Lund today who are involved in the networks around prize-winners.”

Long-term funding is important

Pauline Mattsson’s background is in biotech and her PhD is in knowledge transfer in research networks at the Karolinska Institute. She is interested in how research results are used and is a strong advocate of more long-term funding for basic research.

“It may take 20 years until it’s known what research can lead to. Nowadays, everything is to be evaluated after two or three years. We must allow things to take time and consider the benefits later. Therefore, we must also be prepared to allow a certain degree of risk in funding.”

Pauline Mattsson considers that most national funding in Europe does not dare to take risks. There are, however, examples of funders in the USA, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, that award research grants over a ten-year period, with a follow up after five years. The European Research Council is another example of a funder that focuses on research with an element of risk.

“There is so much focus today on applicable research and not on curiosity in basic research. That is often forgotten. Even when submitting an application for research funding, you are to state the benefit of the research. But, a lot of what we have considered as breakthroughs are based on curiosity and it’s only a long time after the discovery that you know what it can lead to. IVF is just one example of this.”

Pauline Mattsson sees meetings and an interdisciplinary approach as the means to improve the environment for breakthroughs. Even though Nobel Prize winners are single authors of research articles to a much greater extent than other top researchers, a considerable amount of today’s research is conducted by teams.

“Take the Higgs boson. Thousands of researchers were involved. How do you choose one, two or three people when, for example, one prize is to be awarded?”

Text: Louise Larsson
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