What are we going to do about the Nobels?

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.


  1. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Very similar to the “Oscars” given to performers who are much liked by their peers and not so much by their raw talent.

  2. nomadiq says

    Every year the Nobels are announced I only ever remember what the award was for, not who ‘did the work’ – probably because I’m terrible with names but also because I despise hero worship. So what to do?

    I’d like to see media report more on the work, not the people who allegedly ‘did the work’. The genius and hard work of the awardees is an issue far too complex for most science writers to dissect. On the other hand, the importance of gravity waves, circadian rhythm and cryo-EM to our lives is far more important to relate to people. Although I’d argue that that cryo-EM award is overblown.

  3. Emu Sam says

    The Nobels can be added on to. The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences wasn’t part of Alfred Nobel’s will, but it has prestige and association. Make a shinier prize for group work and have a reputable institution award it. If you want to do it in association with the Nobels because of the PR groundwork they’ve put in, chat with the Nobel Foundation and see if they’ll be accommodating.

  4. blf says

    If you want to do it in association with the Nobels because of the PR groundwork they’ve put in, chat with the Nobel Foundation and see if they’ll be accommodating.

    They won’t be. They’ve previously ruled out any additions: “The Board of the Nobel Foundation decided that after this addition [Economics], it would allow no further new prizes.” (From memory, this was (re?-)affirmed several years ago, after a petition(?) about several(?) obvious omissions, specifically including Mathematics.)

    Here is a non-exhaustive list of prizes known as “the Nobel Prize of” a given field.

    And related, Why we’re adding Black Mathematician Month to our calendars:

    Despite the persistence of racial prejudice in society, one doesn’t have to look too hard to find examples of black icons in arts, sport, culture or politics. But what about science? Where can we turn if we want to celebrate the achievements of black chemists, biologists or mathematicians? Not to the Nobel prizes: outside of Peace and Literature, only one prize has ever been awarded to a black person (W Arthur Lewis, for his research on the economics of developing countries), and the Fields Medal, often called the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel prize, has never been won by a black mathematician.


    Racial equality should be a matter of concern for all of us. Where are the Barack Obamas and the Kofi Annans of mathematics? Imagine how much faster mathematics and the other sciences would move if everybody had a chance to make an impact, including those who are currently at risk of being pushed away because of the colour of their skin. Imagine all of the maths and science that we could be missing out on … the fight for equality is everybody’s fight.


  5. rietpluim says

    A little bit off-topic, still about biases:

    Dutch newspaper NRC publishes a list of the 100 most influential Dutch artists.
    People notice that the list is entirely white, criticize NRC for it.
    NRC acknowledges and promises to reevaluate their criteria.
    So far, so good.
    Then the anti-SJW’s engage…



  6. randall says

    Thanks for this post, this is something that has irritated the shit out of me for decades. It’s too much like our sports worship in that only the very tippy top singular performer is worth notice. Even in sports, who, except for baseball nuts, know or remember Jimmie Foxx? ( I am not one FWIW). We tend to deify single people when in fact sometimes hundreds of people have made important, CRUCIAL contributions to the very topic the award assays. cf Weber in the gravity wave business.

    Need deities less, I guess.

  7. Scientismist says

    My doctoral work and thesis (in the late 1960’s) were in the “arcane fields” of phage genetics and molecular biology. When I told my mother about the research I was contributing to in molecular mechanisms of viral DNA replication and gene expression, she asked me why anyone would be interested in that. I told her that, while humans are evolutionarily distant from bacteria and their phage viruses, the biochemical mechanisms of the essential processes were likely to have a lot in common, so we can learn a lot from them that might help us understand human biochemistry and even human diseases. She said that she didn’t think much of that theory of evolution, and that while my ancestors may have been monkeys, hers weren’t. At that, my dad (who never finished high school, but had started reading science books to me when I was 6 years old) didn’t comment about his own ancestors, but just rolled his eyes and smiled at me.

    Later I worked with cellular energy metabolism and an enzyme bound to rat and bovine heart mitochondria. Today I work in another “arcane” field involving the conservation and stewardship of historic records of ocean temperatures and other physical data.

    One thing I’ve concluded from my experience of making small contributions to several diverse fields is that all fields of science, when taken in isolation, are arcane. The marvel is the story that emerges when it all begins to fit together. Perhaps that is what the Nobel folks are (or should be) trying to highlight. How about a Nobel (or equivalent) for philosophy of science? (First nominee: Dan Dennett.)

  8. handsomemrtoad says

    When Yuan Lee won the Nobel Prize in 1986, he said shortly afterwards that he was considering sending it back, because his celebrity status was interfering with his ability to do science. He ultimately decided to keep it because it’s almost impossible to find parking at Berkeley unless you have one–they have special parking places marked “NL” reserved for Nobel Laureates.

  9. DonDueed says

    What are we going to do about the Nobels?

    To the guillotine with all of them!

    Oh, you were talking about nobels…

  10. militantagnostic says

    rietplum @6

    Then the anti-SJW’s engage…

    I prefer the term that Thomas Smith used during his interview with Dumbfuck Damore, “Status Quo Warriors“.

  11. vytautasjanaauskas says

    We’re going to do nothing because we have an intrinsic need to simplify everything in order to fit it into our bullshit social hierarchies.