What does it take to be a successful research scientist? Superior intelligence, mechanical aptitude or, perhaps, a Ph.D.? According to British Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar, none of these is required. He himself does not even have a Ph.D. which is proof, he says, "that human life can persist without the doctor's degree."
In his slim book, "Advice to a Young Scientist," Medawar draws on his own experiences to explain what scientists are like, what research is all about, and what are the manners and mores of the scientific community, or at least the biomedical community of which he is a part.
He explains in his preface that his aim was to write the sort of book that would have helped him when he was starting out in science. He says he also hopes to interest nonscientists who are curious about the lives and motivations of scientists.
Much of Medawar's advice is useful or, at least, amusing. He tells how to choose mentors and research problems, even how to write a scientific paper. Some of his comments seem obvious, but it is unfortunately true that they need saying. For example, he cautions scientists not to read from prepared scripts at scientific meetings. Quite a number of scientists seem to think that this is the proper way to give a talk. As Medawar rightly explains, "It is hard to underestimate the dismay and resentment of an audience that has to put up with a paper read hurriedly in an even monotone."
Nonscientists may well be intrigued by some of the general principles of research and discovery as well as by some of the minutiae of scientific society that Medawar reveals. From the practices he describes, such as the little ways that scientists have of putting each other down, it is clear that many of Medawar's colleagues are driven by intense competition. Medawar himself emerges as a benevolent leader and one who is a master of diplomatic skills. At times, such as in the two chapters on the philosophy of science, the book's pace bogs down. But for any who still believe that scientists work in isolation, holed up in their laboratories, this book will be a revelation.
Nonscientists reading Medawar's book should be aware, however, that some of his advice reflects his own personal experiences and is not particularly true of scientists in general. For example, he obviously loves his work and is deeply engrossed in it, to an extent that is hardly typical of many scientists. He warns husbands and wives of scientists that their spouses "are in the grip of a powerful obsession that is likely to take first place in their lives." Although Medawar doesn't mention it, there are countless scientists for whom research is truly a 9-to-5 job.
A more striking example of how Medawar's experience colors his advice is his statement that women are especially welcome in science. It is so clear that women are as proficient as men, he says, that universities and research institutions have always treated women equally.
Any woman scientist, and many men, will regard Medawar's section on women in science with disbelief. Granted, Medawar himself may be fair to women, but all too many other male scientsts are not. The small number of women in science and their concentration in lower-paying positions indicate that the world of science is not quite so rosy as Medawar paints it. There are also countless anecdotes about sex discrimination. For example, a renowned scientist at a major university recently confessed to me that quite a few men in his department only pay lip service to the idea that women scientists are of any worth. Privately, they hold all the old male-chauvinist views, and these are subtly, and not so subtly, reflected in the way they treat their female colleagues.
Despite these quibbles, Medawar's book is often a delight, being accurate and revealing of how scientists behave. And, fortunately, Medawar seemed to realize that a book such as his can become wearing. It is appropriately brief.