Imagine being in a year-long group project with five other people. The class is notoriously difficult, and an A in it would be glorious for your GPA. So, you all work hard: you pull all-nighters, you exhaust yourself intellectually, and when you finally reach a breakthrough, you make sure that the result is flawless. Your team completes the project, turns it in, and awaits the results.
You eventually find out that while three of your team members got the A, you and the remaining members did not. You ask your professor why, and he says with a shrug, “You should’ve read the syllabus before coming to me. It clearly says that only three group members can receive the A.”
You sob openly in front of the professor.
He hands you a tissue.
There’s nothing he can do, he eventually says. He can’t take the A’s away from the other team members, nor can he give out more A’s. Those lucky members just seemed to have contributed the most, and thus were the most deserving of the coveted grade.
Unfair, right? You worked hard and contributed in a significant way; therefore, you deserved the A just as much as the other members of your team.
It is unfortunate that one of the most prestigious prizes in science works in a similar fashion: the Nobel Prize, craved by researchers, coveted by universities, and viewed by mainstream society as the standard metric for scientific achievement, is an award that decorates select scientists based on a deeply flawed system. Because the Nobel Prize has become one of the primary gateways between the public and the world of scientific research, who receives the prize and under what criteria matters.
The biggest problem with the Prize is not that it honors a specific discovery in scientific research, but rather that it gives the award to a very small number of researchers who have largely similar backgrounds. Science is a collaborative and diverse enterprise – different people from around the world pool their skills to figure out how mechanisms work and to think of innovative solutions to problems. The progression of science is not facilitated by individual geniuses or icons, but rather by a community made up of researchers with specialized skills who perform checks and balances on each other’s work. A Nobel Prize, on the other hand, cannot be awarded to more than three individuals. Scientists don’t work in isolation, so why do we distribute awards as if they do?
Of course, there is the issue of the Nobel Prize overlooking major fields of science – in the past 118 years, the categories of physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine have remained as the sole hard scientific prizes. The stagnant nature of these massive brackets overlooks the incredible contributions of different branches of science in the past century: biology alone is a field complex enough to merit several types of prizes, yet the work of biologists is often overlooked or fettered to the chemistry or physiology/medicine category. Mathematics forms the foundation of how we understand things in physics and chemistry, but there is no category dedicated to the subject.
An equally prominent issue is the Prize’s ongoing issue of showing bias towards men of European descent, and European and American researchers in general, which reflects larger issues of the consideration process excluding women and minorities. For example, in 2014, MIT found that about half of all biology graduate students are women, and 40 percent of biology postdocs are female. Although the Prize is showing signs of becoming more inclusive, women are still vastly underrepresented as Laureates: out of the 211 total recipients of the prize in physiology or medicine, a mere 12 have been women, and only one woman has won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in the past 50 years. One of the more infamous examples of a pioneering female scientist snubbed for the prize was the integral work of microbiologist Esther Lederberg in developing a way to easily transfer bacterial colonies from one petri dish to another. She was passed over for the 1958 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, which her husband and fellow researcher Joshua Lederberg, shared with George Beadle and Edward Tatum.
Coupled with the obvious gender gap in Nobel Laureates is the relentless passing over of significant scientists of color for the prize. To date, the sole black Nobel Laureate in the sciences is Sir William Arthur Lewis, who received the award in economics in 1979. Black researchers have largely worked in the shadows and rarely been considered for the Prize despite the breakthroughs they have facilitated. An unfortunate example of this involves the work of Dr. Vivian Thomas, a black scientist who made crucial contributions to developing the blue baby syndrome surgery. Unlike his white collaborator Alfred Blalock, he was not considered for the Prize in medicine.
Despite all these criticisms, the Nobel Prize still persists as the premier award for any scientist to receive.
Don’t believe me? Just look at UC Berkeley’s campus: the place has parking spots reserved for Nobel Prize winners. The UC system has a page dedicated to its Nobel Laureates on faculty. Every university across the country with a Nobel Laureate as an alum or on staff jumps at the chance to use the Prize to tout its reputation.
In the past century, the Nobel Prize has undoubtedly been awarded, for the most part, to brilliant scientists who have made impressive contributions in their fields. However, the Prize has also played a significant role in overlooking collaborators who fell victim to the three-person rule or gender and race barriers. It’s time to either reform the way in which prizes recipients are chosen, or understand that prizes are not reflections of the best aspects of the scientific community and treat them as such. More weight should be placed on the innovations themselves and the teams behind it – by doing this, we remove the way the public views scientific breakthroughs through the lens of the Prize, make the discoveries more accessible, and allow for a better reflection of how science actually works.
The purpose of the Prize is to commend work that outstandingly benefits the public. Unless the people behind the Prize actively push to make this mission a reality, I, for one, will not be watching this year to see who wins.