Science makes sense, but let's abandon peace

December 21, 2001

If Nobel prizes are really so important, why do they fail to acknowledge so much cutting-edge research?

If physics, chemistry, medicine or physiology is your discipline, fine. You are in with a chance. A small one, certainly; but a chance. If it is anthropology or zoology - too bad. Inside the intellectual stockade marked out and guarded by the sober Nordic trustees of Alfred Nobel, some disciplines rate and some do not.

Whether or not the arbitrary nature of this clutch of disciplines matters depends on your view of the Nobel prizes themselves: a valuable recognition of intellectual excellence, or a pointless and self-indulgent beanfeast. If the latter, their future is of no consequence. But let us assume they are worthwhile - in which case their strengths and weaknesses merit a moment's thought.

The virtues of the literature prize are shared with all others of its kind - as are the drawbacks. The squabbling and politicking that make the Booker such a rewarding annual event are here writ even larger. But the idea of a single competition encompassing prose of all cultures and written originally in any of the world's languages is so completely surreal that to worry whether it could be done better rather misses the point. As long as we enjoy the fun, let it continue.

The peace prize has long since placed itself beyond parody. Mindful that past winners include Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa, Menachem Begin and Yasser Arafat, the definition of peace that underpins it is, to say the least, elastic.

Rather more reputable is the economics prize. It tends to be won by theorists, not by practitioners who might point to something as tangible as an increase in their nation's gross domestic product. But that is neither here nor there because the odd thing about economic theory is that, even when applied, it is hard to say if it is "right". The ideas of John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman have both had a good outing. But the support they get is more in the nature of football fans cheering on their team than of a mathematician demonstrating an algebraic proof. There is no reason to abandon the prize - but it is far from clear what might be gained by tinkering with it.

Which leaves the three science prizes. In the nature of science, the achievements of its practitioners do offer some possibility of objective assessment. The science prizes ought to offer the closest we have to a gold standard of quality. So are they performing well and how might they be improved? I talked to five scientists. Four have already won a Nobel prize. The fifth, in a poll by the electronic biomedical magazine HMS Beagle , is rated by his peers as of Nobel-winning calibre. Most were agreed on several points. First, the Nobel prize is good for science. "It says that somewhere in the system there is an evaluation and an appreciation," says Andrew Wyllie, professor of pathology at Cambridge. "That can't be bad."

The only complaint, voiced by Paul Nurse (medicine or physiology, 2001, see below), director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, is that other science prizes get so little recognition. "The Nobel prize for literature is also in a class of its own, but the Booker prize still picks up a lot of publicity. That doesn't happen in science."

All five dismissed any suggestion that the existence of the prizes seriously skewed research priorities. "There may be some people who think they can organise their whole life to win the prize," says pharmacologist James Black (medicine or physiology, 1988). "But they would have to be nuts. It is the granting bodies and peer-review system that determine what research gets done."

More problematic are the narrow range of topics eligible for an award and the limited number of winners. "I think there is a mismatch today," Black says. "Nobel could never have foreseen the vast output of high-quality investigative work."

Despite this, John Vane (medicine or physiology, 1982) thinks the award committees are doing reasonably well. "Most of the years in which they've had one or two winners have been well judged." One exception, he says, was the 1998 prize in medicine or physiology, awarded for the discovery of the biological importance of nitric oxide. Controversially the three laureates did not include Salvador Moncada, now head of the Wolfson Institute at University College, London. "It might have been appropriate there to make it four," Vane says. "But I would find it difficult to go beyond four. If you go higher you're spreading it too thin."

Black is less certain. "More and more work is being undertaken by scientists working in groups, and the Nobel committee must have an impossible task in whittling it down to three." His doubts are echoed by Nurse. "In any particular area there may be ten groups contributing. Limiting it to three people might mean that prize-worthy discoveries don't get rewarded at all because they just cannot sort out the top three."

So why not increase the number of winners? Harry Kroto (chemistry, 1996) points to the obvious snag. "It wouldn't solve the problem. If you raise it to five, they'll always be a sixth and a seventh."

The Nobel Foundation's statutes allow science prizes to be awarded to institutions. but the need hasn't yet been felt, says the foundation's director, Michael Sohlman.

Another source of discontent is the limited number of areas eligible for the award. "The prizes no longer represent the work going on in science," Nurse argues. "The amount of work being published in biomedicine is much greater than in physics. The balance isn't right. They've tried to compensate for that because the chemistry prize often goes to people working in biochemistry."

"If they can add on an economics prize," Black says, "why can't they add on others?" Sohlman says there are no plans to do so. The economics prize, created in the late 1960s, was endowed by the Swedish Central Bank in memory of Nobel. "The Royal Academy of Sciences agreed to administer it. But no more prizes are envisaged."

So what prospect for anthropologists, zoologists and others whose work doesn't fall into the magic categories? Sohlman, alas, has no pity. "We (the foundation) are the heirs of Alfred Nobel and he was interested in particular disciplines. That is it."

Geoff Watts

100 years of the Nobel contents page

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