This article by Ed Yong in The Atlantic is almost two years old, but I hadn’t seen it before—or at least I don’t remember reading it. Reader Bryan, who sent me the link (click on screenshot for a free read), says it’s “pretty good”, and, indeed, it’s about the best critique of Nobel Prizes I can think of. None of Ed’s criticisms are new, but it’s good to collect them all in one place, if for no other reason that we can evaluate the best case for eliminating Nobels.
Do I agree with Ed’s claim that the Nobels are “absurd”, that, like “every other prize”, they are “flawed and subjective” and that (this is implicit in Yong’s piece) they should be abolished? Not really.
When I was younger I wasn’t that keen on the existence of the Nobels, seeing all awards in science as a corruption of the scientific enterprise. We were supposed to be in the game for curiosity alone, I thought, and the existence of Nobel Prizes corrupted that curiosity, leading to unseemly ambition and, for the winners, arrogance. I no longer feel so strongly—certainly not as strongly as Yong—as the prizes do have one salubrious effect. And I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s part of human nature to want to be admired for one’s achievements.
Have a read: the piece is short.
Here’s a list of Ed’s criticisms of the Nobels ( #3 is mine). Quotes from his article are indented:
1.) The awards are limited to three people, yet modern science often involves huge teams of people, and often it’s not clear who should get the credit. Those who were part of a team and were spurned feel aggrieved. This is true: the numbers of authors on scientific papers is increasing exponentially. In fact, it’s rare to see a single-authored paper, even in my own field of evolutionary biology. As Yong notes, the authors of the team that found gravity waves, for which a Nobel was awarded to three physicists, runs for three pages. A paper estimating the mass of the Higgs boson (for which two physicists won a Nobel in 2013) has 5,154 authors!
How do you apportion credit for such an effort? Well, in many cases, three or fewer people can be seen as the prime movers of the work, so that’s not a problem. And, to my mind, those not awarded a prize shouldn’t really beef about it, because I still feel that the real prize in science is getting to do science—to get paid for satisfying your curiosity. But yes, it is a problem, and sometimes it’s not so easy.
Sometimes the solution is to split the prize among fields, as Matthew Cobb suggested might have been done for the discovery of DNA’s structure had Rosalind Franklin lived (prizes aren’t awarded posthumously). As he wrote in the Guardian:
It is clear that, had Franklin lived, the Nobel prize committee ought to have awarded her a Nobel prize, too – her conceptual understanding of the structure of the DNA molecule and its significance was on a par with that of Watson and Crick, while her crystallographic data were as good as, if not better, than those of Wilkins. The simple expedient would have been to award Watson and Crick the prize for Physiology or Medicine while Franklin and Watkins received the prize for Chemistry.
Ed also mentions a 2012 suggestion by the editors of Scientific American: when there are large teams and no clear standout recipients, the prize could be awarded to a “team”, just as Peace Prizes are sometimes awarded to organizations. While that sounds good, I don’t think it would work, for every scientist would want to call themselves a “Nobel Laureate”, unlike members of, say, Doctors Without Borders.
Finally, I have my own beef—many cases of multiple authorships are gratuitous. Authorship is very often given to people who made little or no contribution to the research (sometimes the head of the lab, who all too often puts his/her name on all papers done by subordinates), or to people whose contributions were trivial: donating a reagent or doing a small calculation. As competition for jobs in science heats up, more and more people want their names on papers, for that swells their c.v. and helps them advance. This is a practice I decry and haven’t engaged in, and I’ve told my students to avoid it, too. But the growth of authorship lists seems inevitable, and not all of it is attributable to the changing nature of research, which now is said to require “teams.” Not all research does. Every scientist knows cases of authors on papers who didn’t really deserve their authorship, but we discuss it sotto voce.
2.) A related issue: important contributors have been overlooked.
The very first prize in medicine was awarded to Emil von Behring in 1901 for the discovery of antitoxins, but not to his close collaborator Shibasaburo Kitasato. The 1952 medicine and physiology prize went to Selman Waksman for the discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin, and ignored Waksman’s graduate student Albert Schatz, who actually found the chemical. The chemistry prize in 2008 went to three researchers for discovering green fluorescent protein (GFP)—a molecule that other scientists commonly use to visualize the goings-on within our cells. Douglas Prasher, the man who first cloned the gene for GFP, was not among them.
I’d add Jocelyn Bell, who first observed pulsars, but was not given the physics prize in 1974 along with two male authors of the paper, despite Bell being the second author. This is related to problem #1. One could, I suppose expand the list of recipients to more than three; after all, Alfred Nobel specified only one recipient per field, but it’s been expanded by custom to a maximum of three. Why not four or five?
Sometimes people beef in public:
In some cases, people have protested their own omission. In 2003, one Ray Damadian took out a series of full-page ads in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times to protest that he had been wrongfully denied a Nobel Prize in Medicine for his role in inventing magnetic resonance imaging. The Nobel committee only recognized Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield for that feat—an omission that Damadian billed as a “shameful wrong that must be righted.” “To wake up on Monday morning and see that I had been written out of history is an agony I cannot live with,” he told theTimes.
Well, Damadian is being a weenie here. Once a Prize is awarded it’s too late. Perhaps Damadian was overlooked, but he should have taken the slight gracefully. His statement that he’s in “an agony I cannot live with” is shamefully self-aggrandizing and embarrassing. And the ads, well, they’re beyond shameful. What do they accomplish except make one look like a big sour grape?
3.) Important contributions have been overlooked. This is my own plaint, though I can’t think of many major contributions that have really been ignored, except in literature. The development of polio vaccine by Salk and Sabin, I suppose, was one of the overlooked science prizes (there was an award to others in 1954 for culturing the virus), though some disagree (see here). But at any rate, people will always differ in what discoveries they consider prize-worthy. I expect one will be given for CRISPR technology, but here again there is a controversy about which of the several developers deserve a prize.
4.) Awarding prizes distorts the nature of science, feeding into a Tolstoy-ian “great person” myth in which progress depends more on individuals than on a history of work building on itself. Ed says this:
The price of reform is low, and the cost of avoiding it is high. As biologists Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang wrote in 2013, the Nobels promulgate the idea of the lone genius—the idea, summarized by philosopher Thomas Carlyle, that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Not so in science, and yet the Nobels feed this pernicious myth. And in doing so, say Casadavell and Fang, they “reinforce a flawed reward system in science in which the winner takes all, and the contributions of the many are neglected by disproportionate attention to the contributions of a few.” In some ways, the prizes are not about who has made the most important contributions, but who has best survived the hazardous labyrinth of academia.
Well, perhaps the public needs to learn more about the cumulative and group-ish nature of the scientific enterprise, but I don’t think the awarding of prizes feeds a “pernicious myth.” And the winner doesn’t take all: everyone gets the satisfaction of knowing their work contributed to the award, and, more important, you’re a winner simply by being a scientist who’s contributed to important work. The “pernicious myth” idea is, I think, a bit of histrionics.
5.) Dead people can’t get prizes.
And in many cases, the prizes are about who has survived, full stop. Nobel Prizes cannot be awarded posthumously. So Rosalind Franklin was not recognized for her pivotal role in discovering the double-helical structure of DNA because she died four years before the Nobel was awarded to James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins. Astronomer Vera Rubin provided evidence for the existence of dark matter by studying the way in which galaxies rotate—a feat that revolutionized our understanding of the universe. “Vera Rubin deserves a Nobel,” said science writer Rachel Feltman in October 2016. “She probably won’t get one in time.” Rubin died two months later.
I don’t see this as a major problem. There are many prizes awarded only to living people.
6.) Minorities, particularly women scientists, have been overlooked.
Rubin and Franklin point to another longstanding issue with the Nobels. In as much as they propagate the myth of the lone genius, that lone genius is almost always white and male. Women have won just 12 of the 214 prizes in physiology or medicine, just 4 of the 175 prizes in chemistry, and just 2 of the 204 prizes in physics. The most recent female physics laureate, Maria Goeppert Mayer, won her prize 54 years ago. It’s not for lack of potential honorees, either. Rubin inarguably deserved one, as did Lise Meitner who contributed to the discovery of nuclear fission alongside laureate Otto Hahn. Between 1937 and 1965, Meitner was nominated 48 times by different people, and never won. “There are great things about the Nobel Prize but we should keep in mind that demographics of the winners reflect and amplify structural biases,” said astrophysicist Katie Mack on Twitter last year.
This accusation seems true, although, to be fair, science was until recently almost completely dominated by men, and men, like women, have been overlooked. (Should we strive for a proportionality of women laureates equal to 50% when in some fields women are far fewer than 50% of the scientists? This reflects the problem of equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome.) But there has been sexism in who has been considered for prizes, and I hope (and am pretty confident) that that bias, and other biases, will be rectified. As women make up an increasing proportion of biologists, the disparity will (or so I hope) be rectified.
7.) Laureates are overly lionized, to the point that their flaws are overlooked.
Perhaps none of this would matter if the Nobels weren’t such a massive deal. Beyond the monetary value of the prize, laureates are virtually guaranteed a stream of lucrative speaking gigs. Their papers garner more citations. They tend to live for a year or two longer than people who were nominated but never actually won. And the award imprints them with a permanent imprimatur of greatness. The Nobel Prize is not, say, a MacArthur genius grant, which is awarded to people “who show exceptional creativity in their work.” It recognizes a particular discovery. And yet the discoverer is forever billed as an intellectual force in their own right—creating an equivalence between one historical contribution and their entire portfolio of ideas forevermore.
Is this really a problem with the Prizes, or with how people react to them? And I’m not sure that a discoverer is forever billed “as an intellectual force in their own right”. Some of them are, for sure, but many are not, and continue on with their work without becoming a national icon. I don’t think Wally Gilbert, for one, has had a “string of lucrative speaking gigs”, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want one. Paul Dirac was content to continue to do science and avoid lionization.
An even less serious criticism by Ed is that some Laureates go off the rails after they get their prizes. Yong mentions William Shockley, who became a racist, James Watson, who has espoused racism and sexism, and Kary Mullis, who was a bull-goose looney. But so what? This can happen to anyone who gets an award. We can’t guarantee that Nobel Laureates will be exemplars of morality and dignity for the rest of their lives.
So we have a number of criticisms of science prizes, some of which, I suppose, could apply to Peace, Literature, and Economics Prizes as well. Are these issues so serious that they warrant the elimination of the Nobel awards? Well, we know that’s not going to happen: it’s the only scientific “event” that the whole world notices: a ritual of the fall and winter.
And that’s why, I think, we should keep them, for Nobels educate people about what the big scientific advances have been. How many people knew about gravity waves before the Nobels were awarded? If you’re a science geek, you’ll have known, and a few newspapers (but not many) have a decent science section; but the awarding of the Nobels, with some descriptions of what they were given for, goes a substantial way towards informing the public about new knowledge of the Universe. Doesn’t conveying that information, which goes around the world, outweigh all the ambition, careerism, and hurt feelings within the scientific community at Nobel time? I think so.