I'm sure many of you are quite aware of the ongoing kerfuffle surrounding the ASBMB's president and his recent comments. If not, you can catch up on it at DrugMonkey's joint and read a great follow-up by Isis. I'm not going to talk about that per se, but rather something that struck me in a bio of McKnight here.
"Among the highlights are his breathtaking images of RNA synthesis and chromatin replication in Drosophila embryos, his pioneering analysis of the transcription of the Herpes Thymidine Kinase Gene, his invention of linker scanning to discover eukaryotic transcriptional control signals, his groundbreaking analysis of the VP16 viral activator protein, his discovery of the Leucine Zipper family of transcription factors, his discovery, purification and characterization of transcription factors C/EBP and GABP, his demonstration that the DNA-binding activity of circadian Clock proteins are influenced by NAD cofactors, his contributions to the concept that transcriptional regulatory proteins from yeast to mammals can be entrained by metabolic signals, and his pioneering contributions to our understanding of RNA granules, the subject of his lecture."
Okay, let's be fair and start by noting that McKnight most likely did not write that.*
Nonetheless, there is no way, no how, that he actually did all that. Maybe some, but certainly not all.
But... but... he published all the first/most important/glamzmagz publications on those I hear you say.
Yes, he did.
But not alone. Those weren't single author publications.**
Note that I am using this as an example. If you think this kind of thing is unusual perhaps you should open your eyes more often.
In science we've been all to quick to assign credit for many major advances made over the last five or six decades to individuals. Or maybe two or three people. But no more than that. A maximum of three can share a Nobel after all.***
But the reality is those people probably did little of the actual work. That's not the major role of a modern PI. Our job is to create and maintain an environment in which others - our trainees, technicians, research scientists - can make discoveries, push back the boundaries, generate new knowledge, innovate. If we get to directly participate a little, great, but that's not our primary role.
You might argue that the intellectual input of the PI earns him/her the major credit. Maybe. But if you're not allowing your lab personnel to make major intellectual contributions, then you're doing it wrong. Those "trainees" of yours are really just glorified technicians.****
Okay, so we all know this. After all, everyone lists the people who actually did the work on their acknowledgments slides and as co-authors on publications. We all recognize (I hope) that many hands contribute to any scientific endeavor nowadays. And I really, really hope all my fellow PI's do their best to let everyone know that the people in their labs are responsible for their latest successes. All their successes as a PI for that matter.
Maybe we should stop worshipping PI's as scientific heroes and recognize that they are often really more effective environment builders than hands-on scientists.
* The whole bio reads like the blatherings of a sycophantic groupie.
** Again, to be fair let's recognize that he almost certainly doesn't take sole credit. We assign it.
*** Yes, yes, I am aware that some Nobelists really did do most or all of the work they won the Prize for, but those are increasingly the exceptions.
**** Maybe that's where the riff-raff come from.