Ed Yong points out the problems with the Nobel prize: they don’t reflect how science is actually done, they tend to reinforce an archaic notion that scientists work alone and have “Eureka!” moments, they are arbitrary in picking which of the many scientists who contributed to a discovery get the award, and when they make those arbitrary choices, they tend to be biased towards male establishment scientists. It also adds an excessive luster to recipients — it’s for a single discovery, but you’re set for life if you get one, and it gives people who had a singular insight, for which their prize was justly deserved, an unwarranted authority on all too many things. That’s how we get a Watson, a Shockley, a Mullis.
He doesn’t mention another problem, though: the narrowness of the categories. You cannot win a Nobel prize for mathematics, or computer science, or evolutionary biology. Not even biology: all the great work in my field has to be warped to fit a category called “physiology and medicine”, which the Nobel committee does (after all, they’ve managed to award developmental biology a few times), but still, it forces us to look at the world of science through a specifically focused 19th century slit.
Rosbash, Young, and Hall, who won for their work on the molecular basis of circadian rhythms, did great work and should be acknowledged. But thanks to the arcane rules of the prize — no more than three people, who all must be alive — there is an army of researchers who also contributed to the work, and will be ignored. Among those contributors was the late Seymour Benzer, a real scientist’s scientist, who made amazing discoveries in the arcane fields of phage genetics and neurogenetics and of course, circadian rhythms. It’s not that Benzer was neglected — he had awards out the wazoo — but that a life of sustained effort and scientific discipline does not get the ultimate award (it’s also bothersome that there is an “ultimate award”) and won’t get the public attention he deserved.
I don’t know what to do about it, though.
The Nobel prize is the result of a wonderfully successful PR campaign that does a good job of highlighting good science…but it also contributes to the public perception of all worthy endeavors as being kind of like a horse race. It’s not what they did or how they got there or where we go to next, it’s all about who got to the finish line first and who gets to wear the shiny gold medal. You can’t exactly abolish them — they’re the outcome of a committee and an endowment, and people have every right to honor scientists — but it would sure be nice if those honors could be spread around more to everyone who deserves them, rather than being concentrated to create an artificial scientific elite.
Bottom line is that we aren’t and shouldn’t do anything about the Nobels. We should have more ways to recognize scientific accomplishment, though, and the media should be able to notice the science happening all around them instead of celebrating gold disks handed out every October.