Usmanov: ‘I don’t need no stinking medal’

It’s pledge week again on National Public Radio. Imagine if Bill Gates had called in and told them, “What’s your fundraising goal for this drive? I’ll meet your target right now if you’ll call off the drive”– and NPR said, “Thanks but no thanks—we’ll see what we can get on the phones.”

Alisher Usmanov (from Wikipedia)

It turns out that’s what happened with Watson’s Nobel medal. Christie’s whispered word about the auction in several countries before the sale. Alisher Usmanov, the richest man in Russia, contacted Watson before the auction and made an offer for a financial contribution to the Lab, on the condition that Watson call off the auction, according to the latest report by Anemona Hartocollis in the New York Times (she’s had the Watson auction beat). But Watson turned down Usmanov’s offer. Hartocollis reports that Watson wanted to see how much he could get for the medal.

So Usmanov let Watson hold the auction and then bid on the medal, determined to win—but to not take home his thank-you coffee mug. As one astute Genotopia commenter observed, things have reached a strange state when a Russian oligarch takes the moral high ground.

This latest twist is vintage Watson. I can well imagine him waving away the rotund Russian and his “boring” (my imagining of Watson’s word) offer of a straight gift. I think the thrill of the gamble caught him. Crick (‘s family) got $2.1M for his. Watson was confident he could beat that. But by how much? At the auction, he watched the bidding intently, grinned broadly when it crossed $4M, and celebrated afterward.

In remarks at Christie’s before the auction, he told the audience to always “go for gold.” Silver was never enough, he said. It turns out that he had something specific in mind: he wanted not the “silver” of Usmanov’s initial offer, but the maximum gold he could get for his gold. The gamble, the risk, the competition, the publicity. The chance to take the stage once again, to rile people up, confuse them, yank the public’s chain. It became about him, not the gift.

Watson enjoys playing the scoundrel and he chose, with classic perversity, to punch a few holes in this clichéd last refuge. The reasons to undertake philanthropy are to be–or at least appear–moral, generous, selfless, humane. As the dust settles on this latest bizarre event in Watson’s long career, he ends up seeming competitive, avaricious, and childish. Of all the reasons he gave for wanting to sell the medal, the most oddly touching was the wish to rehabilitate his image. Alas, he has only reinforced it.



3 thoughts on “Usmanov: ‘I don’t need no stinking medal’”

  1. If you are right about the interpretation of Jim Watson’s behavior it is striking to see a person of his age and experience to be so unsettled. It must be a source of personal pain to feel such an intense drive of ambition without chance of satisfaction. He may have not gotten to Epicurus or Seneca given his busy schedule. Pity.

    You’ve made the convincing argument that we should pay attention to Jim Watson because he has been so influential and made so many important contributions. This is the flip side. His behavior is a model for all the rest of us. Is this acceptable? Is it what we have to push ourselves to do? Raw competitiveness (and even narcissism) often leads to really interesting science. It can also undermine our foundations. It can be a sign of decadence in the culture of professional science.

    • 🙂 Indeed, a little Epicurus might be just what the doctor ordered.

      I hope that I made a convincing argument that Watson should be studied not only because of his achievements but also because of his foibles, gaffes, and indiscretions–in other words, for both sides of your coin. I am not holding up Watson as a model for how science should be done; rather, I am arguing that he helped establish the way in which science has been done for the past half-century. As a philosopher would say, my argument is descriptive, not prescriptive.

      I like your formulation. Competitiveness and ambition have certainly accelerated the pace of scientific advance, but examining Watson gives us a chance to reflect on the costs and benefits of that style. Would science–would society–be better off if science proceeded more aggressively, or less? It is at least a question worth discussing.

  2. I disagree that not accepting Usmanov’s pre-sale offer makes Watson seem “greedy, avaricious, and childish.” Having already endured all the pre-sale negative publicity, would Watson then want to generate additional rumors and ugliness by calling off the sale at the last minute? Also, if the money is to go to charity anyway, how does it make him greedy to want to see how much an auction will fetch? I’m just not really feeling the NPR comparison.

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