The tl;dr version is that if there is a tragic side to Katalin Karikó’s career trajectory, it’s that she stayed in academia far too long. To be blunt, leaving academia is not a failure. As to academia’s potential to stifle ideas, academia at its core is not just temperamentally conservative, but structurally so, given its extreme devotion to hierarchy. There are fads and fashions, along with a large amount of serendipity, as Karikó herself has noted.
This doesn’t mean academics are bad people: some of my best friends are academics (heh). But unless you’re able to fund your own research*, you’re dependent on accumulating the necessary signifiers and credentials to be a successful academic–which can overlap with, but is not necessarily synonymous with being a successful scientist.
Consider: within eight years, Karikó rose to a senior position in a company that developed a vaccine which saved millions of lives. This is not a trajectory of failure. One wonders what might have happened had she moved from academia earlier.
Instead of bemoaning the failure of academia to recognize Karikó, maybe academia–which is where the all-critical training happens–needs to be smarter about helping trainees find career paths that play to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses (and we all do have weaknesses). And I don’t mean this in the sense of ‘if you fail at academia, you can find something else (loser)’, but, as in, ‘academia is a very peculiar environment which happens to be good at training young scientists, but shouldn’t be viewed as the primary career path.’**
Anyway, congratulations and sincere thanks to Karikó.
*Even then, there are some who view this as less legitimate because it wasn’t ‘earned’ through the grant funding process. Which is bugshit crazy, if you know anything about how funding panels actually work.
**In no small part because that’s where most scientists don’t wind up. Maybe some are ‘failed academics’ but that doesn’t mean they’re failed scientists.