Are academic prizes letting down the team?

‘Every young student of science has had a fantasy about winning a Nobel prize,’ says one laureate – and ever more rival prizes are being established. But with a cast of thousands currently pursuing the holy grail of a vaccine for Covid-19, might awards committees finally jettison their problematic focus on lone genius, asks Jack Grove

August 6, 2020
Tug of war Marta Farra, the 'Hercules girl' at a tug of war with gold cup
Source: Getty/iStock montage

It would be churlish to suggest that the thousands of scientists across the globe racing to find an effective treatment or vaccine for Covid-19 are doing so for personal glory. The race, they suggest, is not against one another, but against time. And the prize is global health – not SKr9 million (£775,000) and a gala dinner in Stockholm with no requirement for social distancing.

Nevertheless, such affirmations of altruism have not stopped various people feeling the need to offer or propose large cash prizes to reward antiviral efforts. One of those people, indeed, was a Nobel laureate. Paul Romer, who shared the 2018 prize in economics, told Times Higher Education in May that a £1 billion prize would incentivise US universities to create and deliver a coronavirus test for 10 million people a day.

It isn’t hard, either, to predict that the conquerors of Covid-19 will quickly find themselves supping at the Nobel Foundation’s expense. But choosing exactly who to invite might well present the foundation with a problem every bit as fiendish as finding a chink in the virus’ armour.

In an era of big, team science, the Nobel prizes in chemistry, physics and physiology or medicine have been increasingly dogged by a sense that their limit of three recipients per prize is unsustainably narrow. With a cast of thousands applying their shoulder to the Covid-19 wheel, might we finally have reached the moment when prizes’ focus on supposed individual genius over effective teamwork is re-examined?

Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith (l), the British aviator, aircraft designer and sportsman, on his yacht the Endeavour with his crew, at Cowes, Isle of Wight with gold trophy cups
Getty/istock montage

“There are so many people who deserve credit for so many things [regarding Covid-19 research] – I can’t see how you would acknowledge [only] a single person,” reflects Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal, a former president of the Royal Society and a long-term critic of the Nobel prizes’ recipient limit. “If someone came up with an entirely new antiviral, they might deserve it, but these projects generally involve many, many people. Sometimes it is right to give the Nobel to individuals, but it is wrong when work done by big teams is overlooked.”

For instance, in physics, the discovery that cosmic expansion is accelerating involved about 30 investigators in two groups. Yet the 2011 Nobel prize recognising the breakthrough “went to three individuals, even though several others had records fully as distinguished as the winners”, says Rees.

Hence, for Rees, the recent arrival of new prizes that allow larger teams to be honoured is a welcome step. “The dominance of the Nobels is unhealthy, and it is good to have other prizes with different criteria and subjects recognised,” he says.

According to a 2018 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the number of scientific prizes has doubled every 25 years over the past century, such that by 2018, more than 350 notable prizes were awarded in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics or a combination.

Older examples of prizes include the Royal Society’s highest honour, the Copley Medal, first awarded in 1731 and now coming with a £25,000 prize; the C$15,000 (£8,900) Fields Medal, awarded every four years since 1936 to up to four mathematicians under the age of 40; and the $250,000 (£200,000) Lasker Awards in medical science, bestowed annually since 1945 and sometimes known as the US Nobels.

But a glut of lucrative awards has arrived much more recently. Of these, the most conspicuous is the Breakthrough Prize, the largest monetary award in science, which gives $3 million (£2.3 million) to each of its winners in mathematics, fundamental physics and life sciences, amounting to a prize pot of $21.6 million in total last year. Although the awards are limited to one recipient per year in mathematics and physics and four in the life sciences, the 2020 prize in physics was split equally between the 347 members of the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, which has recently shed light on the nature of black holes.

Backed by some of Silicon Valley’s most famous billionaires, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sergey Brin, the so-called Oscars of Science have, nevertheless, faced some criticism and even bemusement for their attempt to marry Hollywood celebrity culture with science. Breakthrough winners receive their awards from actors, athletes and supermodels paired with various tech entrepreneurs; recent compères have included James Corden, Morgan Freeman and Pierce Brosnan.

Despite all that glamour, the prizes – first awarded in 2012 – command only a fraction of the publicity of the Nobels. Nevertheless, since they cover many of the same categories, they are regarded as having amended some of the latter’s most egregious oversights. In 2018, for instance, the British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell won a Breakthrough Prize for her co-discovery of radio pulsars in 1967 – a feat for which her PhD supervisor, Antony Hewish, was given the 1974 Nobel prize. Burnell herself dismissed the controversy, but her decision to donate her entire winnings towards a scholarship for female, minority and refugee physics researchers helped to raise the profile of the awards.

Other recently established prizes also duplicate some categories already covered by the Nobels. For instance, the Shaw Prize, founded in 2004, covers astronomy, mathematical sciences and life sciences and medicine. Bankrolled by Hong Kong philanthropist Sir Run Run Shaw, the “Nobels of the East” award £1.2 million in each category, to be shared – like the Nobels – by up to three people.

But a recent study found that even within physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, just five sub-fields accounted for more than half of Nobel prizes awarded between 1995 and 2017. And some of the new prizes have been useful in filling the gaps in the Nobels’ coverage, says Rees. These include the Kavli Prize, founded by Norwegian billionaire Fred Kavli and run in association with the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, which has awarded $1 million in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience every two years since 2008. Although no upper limit on the number of recipients is publicly specified, awards have generally been confined to three people or fewer; only once have four people shared a prize.

Meanwhile, the Tang Prize, founded by Taiwanese property magnate Samuel Yin and dubbed the “Asian Nobels”, awards about NT$40 million (£1 million) each to up to three individuals or institutions – plus a NT$10 million research grant – in four fields: sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, Sinology and “rule of law”.

Yet what is the purpose of such awards? Do they inspire researchers to great things? Do they secure science’s place in the public imagination? Do they ensure that the best scientists receive the rewards that their talent and hard work deserve but that universities can rarely afford? Or do they tap into and encourage less worthy motives and behaviour?

“Virtually every young student of science has had a fantasy about winning a Nobel prize,” says Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society and winner of the 2009 prize in chemistry, in his 2018 book, Gene Machine. “But as we mature, these fantasies quickly take a back seat to reality…[so] nobody goes into an area of research with the idea that there will be a big award at the end.”

However, he adds, “scientists are only human” and, “like everyone else, we can be ambitious and competitive and crave recognition. Instead of inculcating a feeling that the work is its own reward, the scientific establishment feeds this desire to feel special and somehow better than our peers at virtually every stage of the process…It is the darker side of a natural human desire to feel respected by our colleagues.”

Philip Moriarty, professor of physics at the University of Nottingham, adds that the extent to which ego and recognition are bound up can be revealed when people miss out on prizes. Although he has been “fortunate” enough not to have directly encountered prize-chasing behaviour, he is aware that it goes on. He has heard, for instance, of “certain academics being very miffed” when they were not made fellows of the Royal Society. “But the extent to which this distorts their science is not entirely clear,” he cautions. “It’s bound up entirely with publications and journal prestige: citations lead to prizes lead to citations…Papers in Science and Nature play a key role in generating invitations to speak at conferences. Yes, the work is often groundbreaking, too, but there’s a ‘symbiotic’ relationship between journal prestige, invitations to conferences, visibility and prizes.”

For David Sanders, associate professor of biological sciences at Purdue University, research grants and appointments can be determined on the basis of previous prizes and are often unmerited: “Many [people] are actually insecure about their ability to evaluate others and use awards given by others earlier as a crutch for making their decisions,” he says. Indeed, he goes further, suggesting that while awards can play a useful role in highlighting the contributions of scientists to society, they are “too often ways for friends to reward friends, rather than a true measure of scientific achievement”.

This sense of prizewinners being members of an exclusive club is borne out by a 2018 PNAS paper, authored by Northwestern University researchers Yifang Ma and Brian Uzzi. Analysing 307 major awards since 1900, the researchers found that almost two-thirds of the winners had won at least two prizes over their careers; nearly 14 per cent had won five; and some had collected as many as 20. For instance, Rainer Weiss, one of the three recipients of the 2017 physics Nobel for his role in the detection of gravitational waves, had previously won an Einstein Medal (established in 1979) and a Shaw Prize.

The smallness of the club of scientific prizewinners may be partly explained by the fact that science has become more transdisciplinary, which allows researchers who make important discoveries to win prizes across a number of disciplines, suggest Ma and Uzzi (Ramakrishnan, for example, won the chemistry prize despite being a biologist). But heaping prizes on a few scientific superstars may also reflect a desire among award organisers to gain reflected glory for themselves, says Jeremy Sanders, a former pro vice-chancellor at the University of Cambridge, who recently chaired a review of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s prize portfolio.

“You see the same when universities give honorary degrees to people who have more prizes than they know what to do with – the honour really belongs to the awarding institution,” says Sanders. While the profile of an award is important in reputational terms, selecting the same candidates can dull its impact, he adds: “By the time Cambridge came to give an honorary degree to Nelson Mandela, there were seven other universities who wanted to do the same, so they were all given in a special ceremony at Buckingham Palace.”

Nor is handing so many prizes to individuals throughout their careers “entirely healthy”, Sanders believes, because that “ladder of expectation” puts certain scientists on the radar of prize committees, while late bloomers or those from “more unconventional” backgrounds find it harder to gain acclaim. “There needs to be a special effort to consider mid- or late-career researchers who have not won a prize earlier on in their career,” says Sanders, whose review team also recommended that more prizes be given to team science, technicians and interdisciplinary research to “reflect how science is done today”.

The team’s report, published in December, also flagged the issue of nepotism: 41 per cent of 1,821 people surveyed – including prizewinners, judges and scientists – agreed that this was a problem. This is borne out by Ma and Uzzi’s analysis of more than 10,000 prizewinners, which found that scientists who co-authored with or were taught by prizewinners were disproportionately likely to become multiple prizewinners themselves. The domination of awards by this “intertwined set of scientists” may make them “vulnerable to in-group thinking that can keep good ideas out or create in-group biases”, Ma and Uzzi add.

Nazira Karodia, professor of science education at the University of Wolverhampton and head of its School of Science and Engineering, was a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s review body. She believes that the dominance of older white, male professors in learned societies could also lead to a “structural and cultural bias, perhaps unconsciously”, against women, gay people and ethnic minorities, despite efforts to remain vigilant about it. “To succeed or be noticed, members from these groups often have to work harder – this can be frustrating and dispiriting,” she explains.

The Nobel prizes, of course, have long been the subject of controversy for the low numbers of women who have been honoured. Only two women have won the prize in economics since it was founded in 1969. And of the original science prizes, awarded since 1901, only three women have won in physics, five in chemistry and 12 in physiology or medicine. Nor do the more recently established awards appear to have broken the mould. The flagship Breakthrough Prizes, for example, have gone to 11 men and no women in maths; in life sciences, the ratio is 38:10, and in physics, Bell Burnell is one of just two female individual winners, against 45 men.

It is sometimes suggested that part of the explanation for the low female award rate may relate to the prize’s recipient limits, with women more likely to be team players and men more likely to pursue personal glory. The physicist Dame Athene Donald, master of Churchill College, Cambridge, is sceptical. “But I do think there are those who are motivated by seeing the next generation flourish more than by winning prizes for themselves,” she adds. “Perhaps there is a higher percentage of women in that group than men, but I don’t believe it would be clear-cut.”

Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith (l), the British aviator, aircraft designer and sportsman, on his yacht the Endeavour with his crew, at Cowes, Isle of Wight with gold trophy cups
Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith (l), the British aviator, aircraft designer and sportsman, on his yacht the Endeavour with his crew, at Cowes, Isle of Wight with gold trophy cups

But she does agree that the Nobels and similar prizes “favour individualism at the expense of good teams and collaborations”, and she believes that the Covid-19 pandemic should be used “to rethink incentivisation overall in academia, and consider more seriously rewarding bringing on the next generation or being good citizens at least as much as judging people by crude metrics of citations”.

Perhaps one way to overcome bias might be to offer prizes for specific, desired breakthroughs that have not yet occurred: the first to come up with the solution, whatever their background, would take the rewards. Such prizes, moreover, have an impressive history of yielding results, according to Anton Howes, head of innovation at the UK business thinktank the Entrepreneurs Network. As historian-in-residence at the Royal Society of Arts, he has studied how the society achieved extraordinary results in the 18th and 19th centuries by offering cash prizes and medals to those who found solutions to problems identified by its members. This resulted in the invention of, among other things, the lifeboat, new safe cranes for building sites and the “scandiscope”: a cheap, flexible and extendable brush that ended the need for child chimney sweeps to climb up the flues.

In the modern era, the longitude prize offered by the UK government in the 18th century for a device to determine a ship’s longitude has been revived in pursuit of a test that will allow doctors “to administer the right antibiotics at the right time”, thus reducing antibiotic resistance. Howes himself cites the $1 million prize pot recently announced by Georgetown University economist Tyler Cowen to help speed coronavirus innovations. While he doubts that “any chemist or physicist has gone into science because they wanted to win the Nobel prize”, he does believe that cash rewards can incentivise breakthroughs.

The risk, of course, is that lucrative competitions also directly incentivise the individualistic behaviour that critics of traditional award prizes lament. That is particularly the case since, as Rees notes, the original purpose of prize money – to support the winners’ research – has been superseded by other funding mechanisms, meaning that winners now pocket all the cash for their personal use.

So would it be better if prizes were just abolished entirely?

Moriarty is “not a particular fan of prizes because they don’t reflect the intensely collaborative nature of science; too often, those who have actually done the research are overlooked because the group leader, who last stepped in the lab in 1997, gets all the plaudits”. However, he suggests, prizes “could be exploited in a beneficial way to improve visibility and recognition of under-represented groups”.

But Karodia dismisses the idea of awards solely for women or ethnic minorities because “to be recognised because you have a different background would be demeaning. No one cares to be patronised in that way.” Instead, she advocates “sensitivity training” for prize committees, to help them “look closer, delve deeper and seek strength in non-obvious candidates”.

The number of prizewinners could also be expanded, she adds. Science could, for instance, follow the 2020 Turner Prize for art, which has cancelled this year’s award and will instead donate £10,000 each to 10 deserving artists. “We need to start looking beyond the ‘wunderkind’ or the ‘star’ to general excellence,” she argues. Making “collaborative effort or merit awards, to be shared by a larger number of unrelated people” would “spread the praise and, thus, reach further”. In the late 1980s, David Sanders went so far as to suggest that the Nobels should be replaced (or at least complemented) by a “Molecule of the Year” prize – an idea taken up by Daniel E. Koshland Jr, then the editor of Science magazine and also Sanders’ supervisor – because this would “allow everyone in the research area to take pride in the designation”.

In Rees’ view, exalting individual scientists not only reflects a distorted view of how modern science often operates, it can be bad for both laureates and society if the garlanded few are relied on as infallible sages on all matters, scientific or otherwise. “The public think Nobel winners are the great intellects of our age, but the prize recognises one outstanding contribution – [a laureate] may get lucky in whether they are recognised for that achievement or not,” Rees says. “They are usually no more informed on matters outside their field than any other university professor.”

A recent analysis of the lifetime output of recent Nobel winners supports the notion that they are indeed no more outstanding than most senior scientists. According to the paper “Nobel laureates are not hot”, published in Scientometrics in February, only a third of the 97 winners of the Nobel science and economics prizes between 2010 and 2019 are among the top 6,000 scientists globally in terms of citations. And a recent paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface adds that the careers of Nobel laureates before winning “follow relatively similar patterns to ordinary scientists, being characterised by hot streaks and increasing reliance on collaborations”.

The Royal Society of Chemistry’s Sanders acknowledges that prizes’ continued lauding of individuals at the expense of teams is untenable. “It is often hard to remember who came up with a scientific idea because team members contribute so much in different ways – it is wrong that we should pick out team leaders for prizes,” he says. But he concedes that overhauling prize criteria could prove difficult in the case of the RSC because the society is “a democratic organisation with thousands of members, and it is being asked to move in a way that not everyone will want”. Rewriting the rules for prizes endowed by benefactors under specific guidelines is also a delicate business, he notes.

Still, for many, the need for change is overwhelming. For Donald, the Nobel prizes in particular “massively distort the landscape” in that they “give people – not least the public – an incredibly distorted view” – not only of how modern science is done but of “what areas of science ‘matter’”. And, for her, it is high time that “team science” was rewarded, not merely in high-energy physics, with its reliance on large shared facilities, but in all fields.

“Collaborative science is not unusual,” she reflects. “It is the norm.”

The Yidan Prize: Educating a field?

While prizes for science, engineering and mathematics have proliferated, education has, until recently, been overlooked by award givers. Then Chinese billionaire Charles Chen Yidan launched the Yidan Prize, which gives a cash prize of HK$15 million (£1.5 million) to two winners – one in research and one in “education development”. The winners also receive the same amount again to scale up their research.

But the generosity of the prize, first awarded in 2017, has raised some fundamental questions for education studies, not least whether the discipline should be handing out prizes at all. When education scholars still disagree on some of the most fundamental questions of pedagogy – such as whether class size really makes a difference to teaching or if pupils should be streamed by ability – is it right to hand out £6 million a year to those deemed to have conducted “outstanding research that makes significant contributions to education” or come up with “innovative ideas that tackle pressing challenges in the field of education”?

“Education is what is known as a ‘wicked problem’ in that there are far too many variables – known and unknown – to ever believe we have the ‘right’ answer,” explains Dan Sarofian-Butin, professor at the School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College in Boston. “We are always struggling with better-or-worse scenarios.”

Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and a Yidan Prize judge, also recognises the problem.

“Physicists communicate and collaborate around accepted principles and an established professional practice,” explains Schleicher, who trained as a physicist before entering education studies. “By contrast, educators try to look at every child individually, [and] there is not even an agreed set of concepts through which we can debate ideas or research.”

But it remains vital for educators to adopt teaching methods informed by research – and the Yidan Prize plays an important role in highlighting what works, he adds. “Medical doctors would not think of themselves as professionals if they did not carefully study the most effective procedures so far developed to deal with the presenting symptoms, nor would they think of developing their own drugs,” says Schleicher. “In education, we tend to teach all students in the same way and give them the same treatment, and, at times, diagnose at the end of the school year to what extent that treatment was effective.”

He also identifies a “chicken-and-egg problem” regarding education prizes. Research in the discipline will remain a small-scale “cottage industry” unless ways are found to make it “more visible and shift it from highly fragmented approaches [by building] a critical mass of effort around fundamental research principles, education will remain a cottage industry”, he says.

The Yidan Prize is part of a new wave of Chinese philanthropy that, by 2017, had already established more than 2,000 foundations focused on education, explains Fabrice Jaumont, founder of the New York-based non-profit education group the Center for the Advancement of Languages, Education, and Communities. “A few foundations have also focused on research and advocacy programmes with a view to improving the field of education overall, and raising awareness about the importance of early childhood education.”

Prizes, believes Jaumont, can play a useful role in this new ecosystem to highlight new ideas and worthy causes. “They exist in all sectors, and I would hate to see education being left out of this new tradition,” he says.

Others are not so sure about whether prizes really encourage innovation. “For me, awarding big prizes to big-name people is a fairly self-serving process,” says Sarofian-Butin. “There’s nothing wrong with giving big awards to important folks, but it doesn’t really foster change. If the goal is truly to seed innovation and make a difference in our classrooms, we must look for practices that are truly making an impact on the ground by doing things differently. These are hard things to find because they are hard to do, but this is where true innovation comes from.”

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