Chemistry Nobel highlights importance of women in science

The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier for their pioneering work on the CRISPR bacterial immune system that permits the editing of DNA.

Aside from the important fact that this was the first time that a Nobel had been awarded to two women for joint work, and of course the immense scientific contribution, there are several other aspects of this award that are relevant to higher education – and society.

Education and internationalisation

Like so much scientific discovery, this Nobel research was the result of international collaboration – among these two scientists but involving others from numerous countries.

Unlike many Nobelists, both Doudna and Charpentier were educated entirely in their home countries (the United States and France respectively), and even more surprisingly, Doudna’s career has been entirely in the US – although she has collaborated extensively with researchers from other countries, most notably her co-winner.

Charpentier, as is common among Nobelists and other top researchers, has had a notably international career, holding positions in Austria, the US, Sweden and now as director of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin.

Policies such as those of the Trump administration in the US and Brexit in the United Kingdom, and growing scientific nationalism in China, close borders, encourage xenophobia and damage scientific creativity.

The importance of face-to-face collaboration

The collaboration between professors Charpentier and Doudna was sparked by an informal conversation at an academic conference years ago. That conversation ultimately led to path-breaking research and a Nobel Prize. It is highly unlikely that a Zoom conference or some other structured virtual meeting would have produced the same result. Serendipity and person-to-person interaction are often the foundation of creative thinking.

While there is always much criticism of academic travel and conferences as wasteful of both time and resources, often what happens on the sidelines at meetings yields important results. Nothing can replace human interaction.

Similarly, much of the criticism of the move to distance teaching necessitated by COVID-19 also relates to the lack of human interaction, between professors and students and among students. The fact is that distance education is not a panacea and has its limitations.

Crediting and commercialising research

This award is not without some controversy. Dr Feng Zhang, a researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Harvard, made a similar discovery a bit later than Charpentier and Doudna. He, however, patented it first, in 2014, resulting in lawsuits over patent rights between Zhang and the Broad Institute on the one hand, and Doudna and the University of California, Berkeley, on the other.

In 2018 the US Patent and Trademark Office and a federal appeals court ruled in favour of Zhang and the Broad Institute, although legal tangles continue in Europe.

Observers say that the Charpentier-Doudna team was first, but why did the Nobel committee not also credit Zhang?

Other pioneering CRISPR researchers include Francisco Mojica in Spain, Virginijus Siksnys at Vilnius University in Lithuania, George Church at Harvard, and several others.

Important science is always collaborative and most often conducted across borders. Scientific discoveries and innovations on a particular topic take place almost simultaneously in different parts of the world – and awarding credit fairly and appropriately is always a challenge.

Implications for higher education

The 2020 Chemistry Nobel has several important lessons for higher education. Among these are:

• The importance of women in science. Doudna and Charpentier are role models to inspire women academics everywhere.

• Internationalism is a central feature of contemporary research.

• The ownership of scientific discoveries, through patents and other means, is central to the scientific process and fundamental to translating ideas to innovations, but often difficult to assign.

• Appropriately crediting research is complicated when similar research is taking place in so many laboratories around the world. Whether Professor Feng Zhang should have shared the Nobel award or not should perhaps be debated, but the tensions that have resulted reflect the challenges of singling out individuals for a prestigious award like this one.

While the Nobels are an annual recognition of accomplishment, and highlight the central role of science and research, universities are engaged in science every day in a world where the ethical, legal and political implications of research are increasingly complex.

Neither universities, nor the larger society, should avoid more thoughtful discussions and planning for the realities that support or restrain this work.

Philip G Altbach is research professor and co-academic director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, United States.