Who are the outstanding mentors of young researchers? Since 2005, Nature has awarded an annual prize for scientific mentoring, rotating through a variety of countries. Over the years it has become clear that, regardless of the country and scientific discipline, there are some consistent key characteristics of lab heads that bode particularly well for young scientists under their leadership. Outstanding mentors tend to have a thorough command of their research field. They are highly accessible to the members of their lab. They can relate to individuals in a way that is specific to each person’s characteristics. And they know how to balance support with the nurturing of independent creativity, problem-solving, integrity and initiative (see Nature 447, 791–797; 2007).

This year’s winners are no exception. The competition was held in Italy, and the awards went to neurobiologist Michela Matteoli, theoretical physicist Giorgio Parisi and chemist Vincenzo Balzani (see pages 443 and 559). All received glowing testimonials from their past trainees. For example, the success of one mentor was ascribed to “complete emotional and scientific investment” in mentees, who in turn “dedicate themselves to work at their best to pay back that faith”.

That degree of mentoring commitment is unusual. All too often one meets young researchers who, despite working in prestigious institutions, have had no such experience. Yes, the ‘sink or swim’ approach can breed resilience, but proper mentoring can safeguard scientific integrity in the full sense of the word. It enables young researchers to develop a critical approach to their own ideas and data, and to maintain professionalism by using robust techniques and analyses. Mentoring also helps to engender a culture of transparency in allowing others access to raw data, gives a sense that one’s leader has one’s interests at heart, and can moderate the pressure to publish. Universities have a duty to ensure that this culture prevails, not least to ensure that public and private money is not squandered on sloppy, amateurish research.

But especially now, the pressures on young lab leaders are huge. Encounters with early-career principal investigators all too often indicate how narrow their focus must be to survive. They might be adding to those pressures because of hyper-competitiveness or anticipated demands from university and funding-agency committees. Typically, principal investigators are well-intentioned towards their younger colleagues, but feel an obligation to produce strong results in the first few years of their labs, to get funding or tenure. They may often feel that they do not have enough time to invest in mentoring their teams. Or they may well judge that they simply cannot tolerate people in their labs who are underperforming.

Such a lack of attention to nurturing individuals could exacerbate another damaging trend. With more people seeking alternative careers during their PhDs because of the ever tougher prospects in academia, those graduate students might lose motivation to go the extra mile to fulfil their research potential. And yet the principal investigator needs the papers generated by the students’ work to get tenure.

These problems can be addressed in two ways: from the bottom up, by a sheer determination of younger lab heads to be responsible leaders; and more importantly, from the top down, by heads of universities and departments providing incentives for great leadership. Such heads should look at the winners of the Nature mentoring awards and ask: ‘Does my institution cultivate such behaviour or hinder it?’