Having His Medal and Selling It Too

Just when we thought that the Jim Watson Nobel medal story couldn’t get any weirder, the anonymous bidder who won the medal last week is returning it.

The medal-winner revealed himself to be Alisher Usmanov, the richest man in Russia. He is paying the total $4.68 million but insists Watson keep the medal. His gesture appears to be one of generosity—but is it really?

“In my opinion,” Usmanov said, “a situation in which an outstanding scientist has to sell a medal recognising his achievements is unacceptable.” He added, “James Watson is one of the greatest biologists in the history of mankind and his award for the discovery of DNA structure must belong to him.” In short, Usmanov used the auction as a means of making a more than $4M donation to scientific research.

As I wrote the other day, it’s not true that Watson had to sell his medal—he’s hardly eating cat food. Usmanov’s stipulation that the money go to research tacitly acknowledges this fact. Triangulating—or rather, heptangulating—on Watson’s numerous statements about what he would to do with the money, he probably intended to keep a chunk of it, but give most of it away. Although he mused about giving to each of the schools that were primary to his education, experience suggests that most will go to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (always his favorite charity). We—or anyway I—will be watching for an announcement in the near future about the endowment of a new Cold Spring Harbor fellowship, probably for young scientists.

So much for the Hockney, though.

But there remains the question of whether Usmanov is doing Watson a favor by returning the medal. Usmanov has upstaged Watson, foiling any effort for Watson to rehabilitate his image through major charitable giving. Watson still has the $600k from the sale of the documents, which went to a different bidder, but that is a small fraction of what his total gift could have been.

Is Usmanov’s gesture a well-intentioned blunder or is it philanthropic one-upsmanship? By returning the medal, Usmanov is simultaneously contributing to scientific research and throttling Watson’s effort to do the same.

If, on the other hand, Watson’s only intention was to raise money for the Lab, then he gets to have his medal and sell it too. I think we can dispense with the prospect of his turning around and selling it again—that seems too cheeky even for Watson. But who knows? Every time he goes out for a long one, he seems to do a double reverse.

The one safe conclusion is that deterministic explanations rarely fit Watson’s actions. A single motivation almost never fully accounts for what he says. Darwin knows, Watson says much that deserves criticism. But anyone who takes his remarks at face value misunderestimates him, is more interested in self-congratulatory castigation than genuine understanding, or some combination of the two.

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