Are the Science Nobels Stuck in the 20th Century?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Most cutting-edge science today is collaborative and global — a reality the Nobel Prizes refuse to recognize.
By Charu Sudan Kasturi
Every October brings an air of anticipation to research universities and laboratories around the world, as scientists wait for the announcements of the coveted Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry — awards won by giants such as Albert Einstein and Marie Curie in years gone by.
It’s been that way for decades. Yet in recent years, there’s an equally unmistakable, collective sigh of frustration that often accompanies the actual announcements. That’s rarely because of any disagreement over the credentials of the winners. It mostly has to do with the fact that archaic rules often prevent the awarding of the prize to several researchers and institutions that deserve it.
Only the Peace Prize can be awarded to a group or an institution. All other Nobels, including in the sciences, medicine, economics and literature, can only be awarded to a maximum of three people in a particular year. The Nobel committee decides how to split the award money among the winners, if there is more than one.
It’s an approach that made sense in the early-20th century — the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901 — when scientists, economists and creative personalities worked in their own homes and labs as individuals, cut off from others. You could indeed accuse them of living in ivory towers.
Not anymore. Global teams, each with between dozens and thousands of scientists, are leading today’s most cutting-edge research — whether on subatomic particles or gene editing. The scale and complexity of modern research often demand that collaboration — and 21st-century communication and transport enable it. A researcher friend at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN, told me Saturday of a new research paper he had recently published that had more than 5,000 collaborators as authors — the list of their names, the joke goes, is often longer than the actual scientific content of the paper.
What’s not a joke is the Nobel Committee’s apparent refusal to acknowledge this reality. You don’t need to be interested in science to recall the noise some years ago around the discovery of the Higgs boson — the so-called “God particle” whose existence helped reconcile pivotal theories of nature that previously did not align. In 2013, the Nobel Prize in physics went to Peter Higgs and François Englert, the scientists who first thought of the particle and developed equations to explain its theoretical behavior. But the Nobel Committee ignored the thousands of scientists at CERN who for decades worked on developing the ideas of Higgs and Englert, researching ways to actually test those theories before successfully discovering a particle that until then had existed only on paper. The rules simply wouldn’t have allowed the Nobel Committee to award CERN.
The problem also arises when multiple teams are working on the same research in parallel, as is increasingly the case today. Look no further than 2020’s chemistry Nobel, awarded last week to Emmanuel Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for developing a novel method for gene editing. It’s the first time the chemistry prize has gone to two women without a man also receiving it. But hovering over their historic win is a cloud of controversy: A separate team of scientists from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has claimed that it was their scientific accomplishment that made the technique developed by Charpentier and Doudna possible. The two teams are locked in a legal dispute over a patent for the gene-modifying technique.
While the law can determine who gets the patent, common sense dictates that if it’s unclear who got there first, and if the research of both teams is robust, the Nobel Prize ought to be shared. Yet because it can’t go to more than three people, that wouldn’t have been possible.
These aren’t isolated instances. The data points to the increasingly collaborative nature of humankind’s top scientific achievements. The physics prize was expanded to up to three people a year in 1956. Between that year and 2000, there were 19 occasions when three physicists shared the prize — most years had either one or two winners. But over the past 20 years, the prize has been split three ways on 13 occasions. In chemistry, three scientists have shared the prize in 15 of the past 20 years.
The collaborative and globalized nature of the world is also reflected in other domains. Take the Nobel Peace Prize, where the rules allowed for the award to go to an organization or group from the start. Between 1901 and 1980, the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to organizations — from the Red Cross to arms of the U.N. — on 12 occasions. Over the past 40 years on the other hand, it has gone to global organizations 14 times, including five times in the past nine years.
The unwillingness of the Nobel Committee to adapt to the 21st century’s collaborative research model also hurts disciplines like economics. But the sheer scale and ambition of modern science means collaboration is no longer a choice but a need. And that makes the sciences worst hit by the Nobel Committee’s intransigence.
Meanwhile, modern awards such as the Breakthrough Prize led by Israeli-Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner — in math, physics and life sciences — and the Gruber Prize in cosmology, genetics and neuroscience are fast emerging as prestigious rivals to the Nobels. They do award organizations and research teams, not just individuals.
To be sure, the Nobel Prizes remain highly sought after. But therein lies the irony: Awards that are meant to honor cutting-edge thinkers and researchers are now clearly out of step with the times. It doesn’t take a Nobel Prize winner to figure out what’ll happen unless organizers wake up.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi, OZY Author Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi