Some thoughts on the HOPE Nobel Laureate Meeting

If you have been following my social medias, you’ll know I’m recently returned from a couple of weeks in Tokyo. I was there primarily to attend the 9th HOPE Meeting with Nobel Laureates, coordinated by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

The conference program began with the 2017 Nobel Prize Dialogue, a free event open to the public, streamed live online, and featuring a lineup including 5 Nobel Laureates (4 real ones and 1 economist) and a quite impressive (although mostly male) bunch of researchers and business people. The theme of the event was “The Future of Intelligence”, a topic I’d hoped would prompt more discussion about education, inequity and ideally truly global issues. Turns out most people wanted to talk about self-driving cars.

Of the laureates in attendance at the Nobel Prize Dialogue, 2 remained in attendance at the HOPE Meeting  and an additional 4 laureates joined across the remaining 4 days of the conference. The 110 student and early-career researcher delegates from the Asia-Pacific and Africa enjoyed a program of lectures, discussion groups, cultural activities, and a visit to RIKEN – Japan’s largest research institute. Delegates also presented their own research in both a poster and a 1 minute (!!!) talk.

In no particular order, some thoughts I took away from the meeting

  • Nobel laureates are impressive people, but essentially just people. Some are gracious, some are weird, some are friendly, some are stand-offish, some are outgoing,  none of them follow me on twitter. Very few of them are even on twitter.
  • A one-on-one conversation or small group discussion is immeasurably more valuable and rewarding than a lecture delivered to >100 people.
  • The Japanese reputation for efficiency can not be underestimated. This was without a doubt the most well run and on time event I have ever attended. Corralling 110 delegates and a dozen or more special guests across a 5+ day program would not have been done anywhere near as well anywhere else in the world.
  • Nobel laureates are not experts in science communication theory or practice (although many of them are reasonably good at it).
  • A Nobel Prize medal is larger and heavier than I imagined. I enjoy holding a Nobel Prize medal.
  • One must be tolerant and accommodating of language and cultural differences at a conference where English is not the first language of most of the delegates. However, my tolerance does not extend to being told that my research is “not a job for a lady” and results in immediate termination of conversation.
  • Incidental, casual conversations with laureates over meals, in elevators, or in hotel foyers are fucking awesome.
  • Laureates that recognise the changes and challenges in the current research environment have the most to offer early-career researchers.  I don’t mind a “do as I say not as I did” approach when laureates are dispensing advice, providing they realise how different things are now compared to when they started their careers.
  • Conversely, while the career stories of all laureates are interesting, advice along the lines of “don’t worry about getting more than one publication per year” or “don’t let your PhD supervisor tell you what you can work on” or “just have passion and everything will work out” is not appropriate and maybe even damaging.
  • Even with the laureates who are more humble and that do grok how different things are now, I’m not sure any of them really truly grasp how much privilege has propelled their careers to the heights they have reached. The word “luck” is bandied about a lot. It might be more accurate to replace the word luck with the word privilege.
  • Not everyone can do “transformative” research and that is OK. But it can be hard to be a researcher in the applied sciences and not feel like a second class citizen in a scholarly environment.
  • Not everyone is able to do interdisciplinary research and that too is OK. Also, collaboration is good and all but not everyone can collaborate with a scientist from Egypt or Myanmar.
  • Down time, relaxation, and sufficient opportunity to be alone is essential even for those with extroverted personalities but especially for those with introverted personalities (not to mention health considerations). A full conference program running from 0800-2200 for 5 days is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting.
  • Nobel laureates are not afraid to say “I don’t know” or “this is outside my field of expertise”. How refreshing.
  • There is very much awesome science being done.
  • The song “pen, apple, pineapple, pen” is an intractable earworm and a menace to society and I wish I’d never heard it.

My thanks to JSPS, the Australian Academy of Science, and my nominating institution for support to attend this unforgettable meeting. JSPS also have loads of programs to attract early career researchers to Japan, more info here.