Nobel-winning work ‘clustered in handful of fields’

More than half of papers associated with science prizes from 1995 to 2017 relate to just five areas

July 29, 2020
Nobel, Oslo
Source: iStock

Just five scientific fields accounted for more than half of the Nobel Prizes in medicine, physics and chemistry awarded over a 20-year period, a new study suggests.

Researchers looked at the key papers associated with Nobel Prizes received between 1995 and 2017 and considered where they lay among a group of disciplines created by mapping 63 million papers indexed in Elsevier’s Scopus database.

They found that out of 114 scientific fields identified through the mapping, five – particle physics, atomic physics, cell biology, neuroscience, and molecular chemistry – accounted for more than half of the Nobel Prizes awarded, despite these fields representing only about 10 per cent of all papers mapped.

In addition, only 36 of the 114 fields bore some sort of relation to the subject of the Nobel papers, with more than 70 fields having no connection with the prizes awarded.

The paper notes that Nobel prizes in economics, which were not included in the analysis, were likely to be linked to fields such as economics and finance, while it also accepts that non-science subjects such as law and philosophy would seldom be involved in work for a science Nobel.

“However, the majority of scientific fields seem to have been excluded by Nobel honours, even though in theory work done in these areas would be eligible for one or more of the three types of Nobel prizes that we analysed,” the paper, published in the journal Plos One, says.

The paper says that it is difficult to know what is causing the clustering and adds that some scientists may also view it as desirable.

However, there is also “a risk that this inequality creates a culture of exclusivity with some scientists considered second-class citizens simply because of the field in which they work or the type of research that they do”.

The authors also point out that the apparent clustering of Nobel Prize papers in a few research areas has important implications given that the awards can have an influence on funding and prestige.

“This may reinforce a circle where privileged fields become even more privileged and achieve even more power and funds, relative to other scientific fields that remain more neglected,” it adds.

“A similar circle may be reinforced at the level of what work will get recognized by Nobel awards in the following years.”

It suggests that the perceptions of those outside science of “what fields of science are valuable” could also be “grossly distorted” by the clustering of Nobels around certain areas.

One solution could be to create more Nobel categories, it adds, pointing out that the introduction of an economics prize means that the odds of an economist winning the honour are far lower than for scientists receiving a Nobel.

John Ioannidis, professor of medicine and biomedical data science at Stanford University, who led the research, said that Nobel Prizes were, if anything, becoming more relevant in modern science given the influence they had.

“This means that fields and types of work that are honoured are likely to attract even more funding and even more prestige and preferences,” he said.

“The challenge is how to encompass a widening horizon of scientific disciplines and a widening horizon of types of work, [such as] teamwork, in the reward system.”

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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