PETER AGRE ON: TRUMP THE VILLAIN, BECKHAM THE PM AND GETTING TOO GEEKED OUT
Donald Trump often brags about the size of his support base, but it is unlikely to include many Nobel laureates, our survey suggests.
Numerous Nobel prizewinners spoke about their disdain for the billionaire property tycoon now occupying the White House, citing him as a direct threat to scientific progress. However, few took issue with him as strongly as Peter Agre, the malaria researcher at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2003 for the discovery of water channels in cell membranes.
“Trump could play a villain in a Batman movie – everything he does is wicked or selfish,” Agre tells Times Higher Education, describing the US president as “extraordinarily uninformed and bad-natured”.
Agre is particularly worried by how Trump “flaunts his ignorance” to appeal to a group of Americans who are happy to dismiss the opinions of scientists.
Those who endorse Trump’s populist dismissal of climate change as a “hoax”, or expert scientific opinion more generally, are “threatened by educated people”, believes Agre. “We are usually from wealthy backgrounds, we have investments, tidy homes and read books – they do not respect that,” he says.
Science has not done as much as it could to bridge this growing cultural divide between the public and the scientific community, believes Agre. Many scientists are guilty of revelling in a geeky persona that many in the general public feel comfortable dismissing.
“When people can pick out scientists from a distance, we are maybe not projecting the best possible image,” says Agre, joking that “maybe we shouldn’t look like Doc Brown from Back to the Future”.
He is in awe of the “phenomenal work” being undertaken at scientific labs throughout the world, but intellect alone does not make a great scientist, he contends.
“I do not feel that I had incredible scientific talent when I was a student – I was just as interested in journalism or politics at the time,” he explains. “Any success that
I achieved is something of an astonishing miracle.”
Having completed a chemistry degree at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Agre enrolled at Johns Hopkins’ medical school, which exempted him from the Vietnam War draft. Although the laboratory that he subsequently joined was “very good”, it lacked any famous names; his immediate supervisor, Vann Bennett, had been his classmate at medical school. However, Agre was allowed to follow his interests as a postdoctoral fellow, and his work on cholera paved the way for his Nobel prizewinning research, he explains.
“If you just pay attention to what is being hyped in the scientific media, you can miss out,” Agre says, adding that his experience shows that “fantastic science is often emerging from not-so-famous places”.
But any young scientists dreaming of winning a Nobel prize should put such thoughts out of their mind, Agre advises.
“If you have a graduate student trying to complete their PhD and change the world at the same time, they’ll probably fail on both counts,” he says.
While Agre may worry about the villains populating world politics, he is also hopeful that some equally heroic figures will arrive to begin the fightback. Yet his suggestion for who the UK’s next progressive political leader should be is an unlikely one. “I once met David Beckham in an airport lounge in New Zealand. It was very late, but he kindly wrote a note for one of my daughters, who is a fan – he was an absolute gentleman.
“Maybe a celebrity candidate could actually do some good.”