It’s somewhere between a Cinderella story and a “so there” to the academic-science establishment.
On Monday, Katalin Karikó was announced the winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, alongside her colleague Drew Weissman. The two had worked together at the University of Pennsylvania on messenger-RNA research that paved the way for Covid-19 vaccines. But Karikó was not always embraced by the scientific community, and in the days since the prize was announced, national news headlines and social-media commentaries have seized on her story. After years of unsuccessful attempts to obtain grant funding, Penn demoted her and cut her pay in the late 1990s. Years later, she was told she was “not of faculty quality” and kicked out of her lab space. And a paper she and Weissman published in 2005 was initially desk-rejected by
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On Monday, Katalin Karikó was announced the winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, alongside her colleague Drew Weissman. The two had worked together at the University of Pennsylvania on messenger-RNA research that paved the way for Covid-19 vaccines. But Karikó was not always embraced by the scientific community, and in the days since the prize was announced, national news headlines and social-media commentaries have seized on her story. After years of unsuccessful attempts to obtain grant funding, Penn demoted her and cut her pay in the late 1990s. Years later, she was told she was “not of faculty quality” and kicked out of her lab space. And a paper she and Weissman published in 2005 was initially desk-rejected by Nature, which considered it an “incremental contribution.” (The paper appeared in Immunity instead.)
It was that paper that, 15 years later, became a blueprint for the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines that saved millions of lives around the world. Karikó and Weissman’s work “fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system” and enabled vaccines for the virus to be created and distributed inside of a year, the Nobel Prize committee wrote.
Karikó, who is originally from Hungary, has described the challenges she faced as a scientist in media interviews through the years and in her memoir, Breaking Through: My Life in Science, being released next week. But her story drew exponentially more attention after Monday’s announcement. It especially struck a nerve with scientists and academics on social media, who seized upon Karikó's recounting, in an interview on the Nobel website, of being “kicked out from Penn” and “forced to retire.” It felt like fitting karmic payback that the ambitious scientist who’d never managed to land a high-profile grant and was shut out by a high-profile academic institution was now a Nobel laureate.
Some called on Penn, which celebrated the Nobel news with a press release and a visit from Karikó and Weissman, to apologize for its treatment of Karikó. (She remains an adjunct professor at Penn, where Weissman holds a named professorship.) “The Penn Medical School is a powerful, influential entity,” Holden Thorp, editor in chief of the Science family of journals, told The Chronicle, “and schadenfreude about them missing this is irresistible.”
There are parallels, perhaps, with the story of Richard F. Heck, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2010, despite having retired from academe in 1989 because he couldn’t secure funding. “I retired instead of fighting the system,” Heck told Chemical & Engineering News in 2011.
For some, Karikó's ultimate triumph made their own struggles — a grant or job rejection, concerns about being able to make it in the cutthroat world of academic science — sting a little less. “It’s satisfying because it’s a little bit of an ‘F-you’ to the grant committees, to the journals that rejected her: ‘This person that you thumbed your nose at was still able to get the Nobel Prize,’” said Hannah Wirtshafter, a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at Northwestern University.
It’s satisfying because it’s a little bit of an ‘F-you’ to the grant committees, to the journals that rejected her: ‘This person that you thumbed your nose at was still able to get the Nobel Prize.’
But beyond that satisfaction lies a more complex set of emotions and realities about the academic and medical enterprises that failed Karikó. Or, as Wirtshafter put it, “It’s one of those things that you kind of have to laugh at, so it doesn’t become too depressing.”
Wirtshafter knows those feelings well. She’s entering the job market, and applied for a major grant this year. At the time, it was hard to escape the idea that her entire career hinged on whether she was awarded the funds — without the grant, Wirtshafter worried, she might not be able to land a job or carry on her research. And she’s known junior and senior scientists who’ve left the field or been forced into early retirement over an inability to get grant funding. Even though Wirtshafter’s own grant proposal was successful, she found Karikó's story unsettlingly resonant.
For many academics, that story was disturbing but not surprising. It was, they said, indicative of a certain insularity and clubbiness that Karikó herself described in an interview on The Joe Walker Podcast last month.
“There is a ‘center’ where the money, the fame, is. Most likely your proposal gets funded because it’s on the most favorable topic,” she told Walker. “And then there are people in the periphery. There is no fame, there is no money, no nothing there.” Grant success, meanwhile, “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.’”
Besides the disadvantages of academic outsiderism, there’s another structural cause for Karikó's struggles: Systems of funding, tenure and promotion, and publishing aren’t built to uplift what Thorp called “adventurous science” — which is what, for so many years, the idea of mRNA as a key ingredient in therapeutics was. Federal grant committees and journal editors are more likely to encourage the idea that will pay off in a year and not a decade, the flashier, more persuasive writing over the highly technical proposal. And the promotion-and-tenure czars in turn honor the CVs that are decorated with big-money grant projects and top-tier journal acceptances.
“We fund a lot of people who are very good at writing sexy papers but whose work is not actually all that scientific and will probably not withstand the test of time,” said David A. Scales, a physician and assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. “Yet we underfund people like Kati, who are arguably the ‘real scientists,’ who might struggle with the communicative aspects of science because English is their second language or they were never brought up in the grantsmanship game.”
Scales would know: Twenty-five years ago, he was an undergraduate studying under Karikó and Weissman. Even then, among the students in the lab at Penn, “Karikó’s history was still only discussed in hushed tones as a cautionary tale for young scientists,” Scales wrote in a 2021 column about his mentor. It was a lesson in how science often valued quantity over quality when it came to publishing papers. “You would think that those two things would be 100-percent juxtaposed, but they’re not,” Scales told The Chronicle. “The gap between that juxtaposition is widening, you could argue.”
It’s that structure that bears responsibility for Karikó's struggles, Thorp said, not Penn or Nature, which didn’t recognize her earlier work. “It’s certainly the case that if you can’t get an NIH grant for your research, it’s very hard to sustain your status at any big-time medical school,” he said. “Universities for 70 years have relied on publications and grants as their primary means of deciding whether to tenure or promote someone. If you fail to get those, then the university is not set up with a mechanism to deal with that, because the universities rely on the funding agencies and the journals as proxies for quality control.”
But academic institutions also don’t have the bandwidth to independently assess the quality of their faculty members’ work. “What would you do? Have some kind of committee of faculty that would read stuff and say, ‘You know, this stuff is good. It’s so good that we should ignore the fact that it hasn’t been published in a high-profile journal or received an NIH R1 grant’?” Thorp asked. “Almost no university is capable of doing that.”
The problem, then, is “the failure to produce a system that is capable of evaluating research on its merits and not by its ability to navigate the hidden curriculum of how you get papers and grants,” Thorp said.
It’s a complicated story, pointing to flawed processes but no clear villains. But it’s also something to keep in mind next time your grant proposal gets rejected.