Know no Nobel Prizes

Despite his genius, Charles Darwin would probably not have been awarded a Noble Prize

It’s that time of the year again when we hear of the latest crop of winners of The Nobel Prizes. These are awarded across the sciences and humanities with prizes for chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. Over the last 116 years the Nobel Prizes have become the byword for excellence and peak performance in academic and intellectual endeavour.

Originally conceived and funded by Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, he was only moved to set up the prizes after he read his own obituary and realised that he would be forever remembered is the man who bought mass death to the world. So, to spin his legacy in a more positive light, he set aside a large portion of his enormous wealth generated from his explosive invention to set up the eponymous prizes.

Unfortunately prizes are the poorest measures of performance in science and research. The Nobel Prizes doubly so. Scientific research is not conducted as a competition to find out who’s the best scientist. Selecting only one winner for a prize ignores the efforts of many other researchers and a variety of scientific endeavours that really ought to receive our attention and accolades.

Among the many faults of the Nobel Prizes in particular is the fact that they do not represent all areas of science equally. There is no Nobel Prize for biology for example. Charles Darwin would never have received a Nobel Prize because his research does not fall into any of the existing Nobel Prize categories (some argue that he could have been shoehorned into the physiology or medicine prize but that’s a long bow to draw).

Darwin was also dead before the prizes started and that’s another problem with them; they are not awarded posthumously. Thus the famed case of Roselind Franklin missing out on the Nobel Prize for her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA – she died four months before the award was announced. The prize went to Watson, Crick and Wilkins whose names will be forever remembered, ignoring Franklin. The Nobel Prizes distort the history of science.

A Nobel Prize can be awarded to a maximum of three people so when more than three people have contributed to award-winning research, most of the other co-authors are ignored. This happened this year in the Nobel Prize for Physics and the discovery of gravity waves. That Nobel was awarded to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish who led the Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project. But the list of authors on the papers that describe this tremendous discovery is three pages long. None of those other names will be remembered despite their contributions.

The fact that there is only one prize annually for physics, another for chemistry and a third for physiology or medical research means that only three research projects can be recognised by The Nobels each year. There are plenty of other research projects within those disciplines that are equally worthy of our attention and adulation that will not be recognised because they did not receive one of Alfred’s gongs.

There is also a curious bias against women and against any researchers who are not white and male. Of the 214 prizes in physiology or medicine, women have only won 12. Only 4 women have won one of the 175 prizes in chemistry, and there are only 2 female winners of the 204 prizes in physics. Similarly there is a gross over representation of white male Nobel Laureates while there are plenty of viable candidates from other ethnic and racial backgrounds.

So, rather than celebrating excellence in the world of science, the Nobel Prizes give us a very distorted view of what is best in scientific research from around the world. There must be a better way to celebrate the best that science has to offer.

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