How We Expect a Nobel Laureate to Behave

I consider myself fortunate to have had the experience of meeting a good number of Nobel Prize winners and also to listen to them giving lectures as well. I have also moderated one lecture session by a Nobel Laureate and have also sat on the panel for the coveted King Faisal Award with another. Many of my colleagues have also met and interacted with Nobel Laureates too and have shared their experiences. Just like other human beings, no two laureates are the same and we expect that their personalities and behaviour to be different too. Furthermore, genius is sometimes associated with certain kind of unique phenotype or traits which may even be peculiar. But, are all laureates really NICE people? Most of us expect them to be. Have our experience meeting and interacting with them always been enriching and memorable?

Many Nobel Laureates travel the world to give invited lectures or become advisors to nations, presidents, prime ministers, universities or industries. They are not cheap to be engaged for those duties especially for the developing nations. I have been told that the Malaysian rate is about RM10,000 per day for honorarium with first class travel (sometimes with their spouses too) and accommodation. Many of us will agree that they deserved those privileges. After all, some of our top celebrity singers are paid RM10,000-20,000 per song when they appear at special dinners and events. Many will treat these laureates like kings and queens and give them the red carpet welcome.

My question is: how do we expect them to behave? Of course we expect them to be very clever and intelligent hence whatever that comes out of their mouth often gets quoted and referred to. I also believe that many laureates are nice people and show the humility despite them having achieved the most prestigious award in medicine, physiology, physics, chemistry or economics. But sadly, I have also seen and witnessed the non-exemplary behaviour of a few of them. Other colleagues, both local and international, have also share their experiences. I have seen a few who seem to think that they are the masters of all trades and have expert views on practically everything – from molecular biology, business management, the weather, psychology, and also religion. And most of the time, we see people nodding in agreement and the open-mouthed amazement when in their presence, despite not agreeing with the views of these laureates. I believe this group of laureates is the exception rather than the rule.

Let me ask you this. If their expertise in on molecular biology, can they give their opinion on the cure of diabetes by gastric bypass surgery? If their expertise is on economy, can they give an opinion on religion? If their expertise is on physics, can they give an opinion on religion (oh yeah we know…the big bang theory)? I believe they should not even try to. If they want to, in the spirit of academic freedom as we all call it, they must be ready to link the opinions with facts and figures. Otherwise it becomes just mere opinions to many of us. I personally believe in keeping within the boundaries of my expertise when giving an ‘expert’ opinion.

I believe that these laureates when they go to the developing nations, they must realise that we want to emulate them, we want to learn the positive attributes which have allowed them to win the coveted Nobel Prize, we want to learn about their area of expertise and their current work. We want to be inspired and we want to feel proud to be in the company of the laureates. The young scientists will want and to be motivated by their achievements, knowledge and wisdom (and to have a ‘selfie’ with them….if possible).

I have the following advice for these laureates when they come to developing nations like ours. Please do not patronise us when you come. Please do not impose your opinions upon us, apart from your area of expertise and perhaps about the hot/rainy weather, the delicious food and the wonderful hospitality in Malaysia. Please do not comment on our religion (Islam) and try to insinuate that we follow the Quran without question. To this end, for those laureates who have time on the plane in the first class cabin, please persuade yourself to read the translation of the Quran and learn that it reveals facts about creation, embryology and other scientific phenomenon long before you laureates were born. Please rid yourself of the colonialist minds and prejudices. Please remember to be nice and please be polite. All mums will tell their kids these. Please just understand why we bring you here in the first place i.e. to talk about science, to guide, to give advice and to inspire.

A few of the Malaysian universities now have some Nobel Laureates in residence. I agree it is an excellent program. But we must really get the value for our tax-payers money. Yes, they do give the valuable advice which we need. asda opening times But if their behaviour or comments goes beyond their area of expertise and they start being insensitive of the local culture and the religion, we must be brave enough to put a stop to this.

Having said all of the above, let me share the most valuable experience I have had with an outstanding Nobel Laureate. This was a one-on-one presentation and discussion with the Nobel laureate for Physiology and Medicine (2001), Professor Dr. Leland Hartwell, in his private office at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, USA, in December 2004. He dedicated 3 hours of his time (Nobel Laureates often have very busy schedules) just to look and comment on our research proposal for The Malaysian Cohort project. He gave a comprehensive critique of the proposal and gave plenty of intelligent ideas especially on cancer biomarkers. He really inspired me. Never once did he make me feel offended nor belittle my comments or even go beyond his field of expertise except for the usual jokes, banter and pleasantries. I am sure there are many laureates out there who are like him, nice, humble, polite and inspiring. But for those who are not, you need to learn. Winning the Nobel Prize does not mean that you stop learning.

Professor Datuk Dr. A Rahman A Jamal