The Man Who Wasn't There

Douglas Prasher

In the predawn darkness of 16 October 1987, the phone rang in the Altadena, California, bedroom of Donald Cram, owner of a rug-cleaning business. In a fluting voice, an unknown caller congratulated the sleepy Cram on winning the Nobel Prize. Thinking he recognized the voice of a pal known for practical joking, Cram hung up. But the man with the strange accent called back and insisted that Cram's work on molecular structure had indeed taken science's top honor. That's when the former chemistry major groggily realized that his frustrated caller wanted the Los Angeles area's other Donald Cram, the one who taught at the University of California, (UC) Los Angeles, and had an unlisted phone number.

But this column isn't about the carpet cleaner who won the Nobel Prize. It's about the courtesy van driver who didn't. The 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry honors Osamu Shimomura, professor emeritus at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) and Boston University Medical School; Martin Chalfie, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of biological sciences and department chair at Columbia University, and Roger Tsien, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UC San Diego, for "the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP," according to a Nobel statement. Used as an intracellular "tagging tool," GFP is a "guiding star for biochemistry" that lets scientists watch processes involved in cancer, neural development, and much more.

But a fourth man, Douglas Prasher, played what Tsien has called "a very important role" in the GFP story, making it possible for Chalfie and Tsien to do their work. "They could've easily given the prize to Douglas and the other two and left me out," Chalfie has been quoted as saying in numerous media reports. But they didn't give it to Prasher, and for anyone interested in understanding the scientific labor market, the tale of Prasher, the protein, and the prize serves, rather like a glowing body within a cell, as a marker revealing realities often obscured by misconception and myth.

Glowing tributes

Image: Kelly Krause

The Nobel Committee never picks more than three winners for any discovery. Prasher, the biochemist who first cloned the GFP gene, published it in the journal Gene in 1992 and freely shared it with Tsien and Chalfie when they asked for it; however, he was not on the list when the laureates were announced. He also differs in another way from the winners, who occupy prestigious academic chairs.

These days, Prasher spends his working hours in a different kind of seat, behind the wheel of courtesy shuttle, a minivan with "Bill Penney Toyota" written on the side in big letters. He took the $8.50-an-hour job with the Huntsville, Alabama, auto dealer after a year of unemployment following the loss of a research position on a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)–funded life science project located at Huntsville's Marshall Space Flight Center. With two children in college, payments of $750 a month to COBRA for his family's health insurance, and scientific positions unobtainable in the hard-hit area, Prasher had to take what work he could find while continuing to search for a research post, he tells Science Careers by telephone. His voice trails off as he says, "Our debts are just ..."

A near-Nobelist ferrying an auto dealer's clients is, of course, the kind of apparent anomaly that journalists love, and it quickly became a human-interest item about outrageous and unfathomable unfairness. A secondary theme of the coverage, reflected in one of the brainier stories, is the "staggering waste of talent" in Prasher's current situation. One perfervid account styles him the "genius behind the wheel."

Modest, humorous, and down-to-earth, Prasher disavows claims of genius. Still, at the time he cloned GFP, back when hardly anyone knew it existed, he foresaw its potential as an intracellular marker and knew that if it were properly developed for that purpose, "it would be just phenomenal. To me, it was a no-brainer." That potential, in fact, is why he sent it off to Chalfie and Tsien at a time when he believed he would soon be leaving the field of bioluminescence. An Ohio State Ph.D. and a former University of Georgia biochemistry and genetics postdoc, he was then an assistant scientist (equivalent to assistant professor) up for tenure at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). His small lab's funding had run out and he expected--rightly, as it turned out--that he would not be retained. He was, he says, "going to go work for the government on something totally unrelated. I walked away from" GFP. But before he did, he handed it on to people who might advance it toward what he knew it could become.

Prasher does not begrudge them the Nobel. "Both of them have always given me credit," he says, including during the Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm, which he attended as the winners' guest. "I've always felt proud in what I provided them. ... I can't imagine the Nobel Committee ever seriously considering me, because I simply dropped out of science." Winners, he believes, "have distinguished careers, ... made this great contribution, and ... continue to have distinguished careers."

But this isn't the tale of a man who walked off the stage at his moment of destiny, because in fact Prasher never did drop out of science. Instead, he spent the next 14 years doing challenging and useful research. What he did drop out of--or, more accurately, was booted out of by a tenure committee that did not foresee his work's possibilities--was high-stakes academic science. And that was no aberration but rather a perfectly normal--indeed, a common and ordinary--event in a labor market built on what economists call the "tournament model."

Winners and losers

One of various ways of organizing work that economists have identified, a tournament market "offers participants the chance of winning a big prize--an independent research career, tenure, a named chair, scientific renown, awards--through competition," writes Richard Freeman and co-authors. Tournament markets amplify "small differences in productivity into large differences in recognition and reward," Freeman and co-authors continue. Academic science is only one such market; other familiar examples include rock music, professional sports, and national politics. Someone who does not get the Nobel may have published similar results 3 days after the winner. An actor who narrowly misses a movie role might well have given a better performance than the Oscar winner. Most labor markets are not winner-take-all elimination contests, however, so we'll never know the names of, for example, the world's greatest dentists or electricians or community college teachers.

Besides heaping immense accolades on a small number of champions, tournament markets share another feature. They constantly discard huge amounts of very high-quality talent, training, and skill. All the aspiring varsity quarterbacks who don't make the NFL, all the young scientists who come very close to tenure, are cast aside. Prasher differs from an unknown--but undoubtedly very large--number of other highly able former researchers not in that he is necessarily vastly more brilliant than they are (or vastly less brilliant than the three GFP laureates) but in the twist of fate that brought his situation into public view. In the mythic version, science rewards effort and ability, so Prasher's predicament must be some inexplicable mistake. In the real world, casting off large numbers of extremely capable people is no anomaly but simply how a tournament market works.

In that fateful summer of 1992, Prasher moved from WHOI to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) lab, on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, where he worked on identifying pests "using molecular and biochemical methodologies," he says. After 9 years, APHIS transferred him to its lab in Beltsville, Maryland. Several years later, he joined NASA in Huntsville, developing "handheld devices to perform diagnostics during long-term space flight, ... one of the most fascinating things I've ever worked on." Because "our project had nothing to do with putting a new rocket up," it and other life science work lost funding. In 2006, Prasher landed on a flooded job market.

He is currently exploring options for getting back to research and is open to other offers. His extensive accomplishments, however, have not protected him from the prejudices of at least some other scientists. After a "a great interview" with one potential employer who "knew my scientific history," he recalls, "I thought I had the job because he said, 'All I have to do is okay this with management.' But on the way out, he walked me to the door and asked me, 'What have you been doing since you were in science?' And I told him. He gave me this funny look and I think right then he decided, that was it."

Knowing that "it takes a while" to work out "the right fit," Prasher remains optimistic. "I think it's a shame that Doug has not been recently in a position to do science that would use his talents," Tsien has said. That's a Stockholm-sized understatement but one that is true not only of Prasher but also of many other involuntarily former researchers whose names we will never know.

Text corrected: 17 February 2009

Beryl Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

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