What’s wrong with the Nobel Prize?

Heather Lee


Heather Lee
Fifth Year Doctor of Philosophy (Medicine)
University of New South Wales

Having completed a Bachelor of Science with Honours in Biochemistry at University of Sydney, Heather commenced her PhD studies at the Garvan Institute in 2006. Her research examines Elf5, a gene involved in mammary gland development and breast cancer. On completion of her thesis this year, Heather hopes to continue working in medical research.


Introduction

The Nobel Prize is the single greatest honour that can be bestowed upon a scientist, and yet it has received its fair share of criticism. Even Nobel Laureate, Max Dulbrück, has criticised the Prize stating “by some random selection procedure, you pick out a person and make them the object of a personality cult. After all, what does it amount to?” [1] Recently, there have been calls to reform the Nobel Prizes with ten scientists writing an open letter to the executive director of the Nobel Foundation. [2] This article presents a critical analysis of the Nobel Prize and its role in science, showing that whilst flawed the Prize is still valuable.

The origin of the Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize is named after Alfred Nobel, who made a fortune in the munitions industry after inventing dynamite. When he died in 1896, Nobel’s estate was worth more than 33 million kronor with one year’s interest from the fortune equal to the annual budget of Sweden’s greatest university. [1] Nobel’s will, written in 1895, dedicated the majority of this estate to prizes for those who had “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” by making “the most important discovery or invention” in the fields of physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine. In just one short paragraph, Nobel directed how the Prizes should be awarded: the Swedish Academy of Sciences was appointed to award the Physics and Chemistry Prizes and the Karolinska Institute was given responsibility for the Prize for Physiology or Medicine. [3] Nobel also included Prizes in Literature and Peace, but these will not be discussed in detail in this article. For various reasons, Nobel’s will remained in legal peril until 1898 when the Nobel Foundation was finally established as the legal legatee. [4] In 1901, five years after Nobel’s death, the first Nobel Prizes were awarded.

The role of the Nobel Prize in recognising and rewarding great discoveries

The purpose which Alfred Nobel intended his Prizes to serve remains their primary role: to recognise and reward great scientific discoveries. [5] Indeed, one of the reasons that the Nobel Science Prizes now demand so much respect is that their histories give testimony to many of science’s most significant discoveries. Only on a few occasions has a Nobel Prize in Science been awarded for an undeserving discovery. Most notably, Johannes Fibiger won the 1926 Nobel Prize for Medicine for discovering that parasites caused cancer, a discovery which later turned out to be completely unfounded. [1,6] There have also been instances in which outstanding advances in scientific thinking have gone unrecognised by the Nobel Prize. Albert Einstein, although awarded a Nobel Prize for the discovery of the photoelectric effect, received no recognition for his most important achievement, the theory of special relativity. On the whole however, the Nobel Prizes for Science have been awarded for great scientific discoveries. The prizes have found their value in the calibre of their recipients. [5]

The Nobel Prizes for Peace, and in particular Literature, have not fared as well. [1,4] In the early years the Nobel Committee for Literature favoured conventional authors and failed to recognise greats such as Tolstoy. Consequently, the reputation of the Literature Prize was damaged and still suffers. Some suggest that the Science Prizes have enjoyed more success because science is objective, and the selection of Prize winners is less arbitrary than in the subjective fields of literature and peace. This is not the case. The selection process for the science awards is also subjective and may be influenced by the bias of the decision-makers.

Is the decision-making process arbitrary?

The statutes of the Nobel Foundation dictate rules for selecting Prize winners, adding several criteria to those stipulated by Nobel. These can be summarised as follows: [7]

  • Prizes may only be awarded for work that “by expert scrutiny has been found to be of … outstanding importance” and of great benefit to mankind.
  • “The awards shall be made for the most recent achievements in the fields of culture referred to in the will and only for older works if their significance has not become apparent until recently.”
  • “To be eligible to be considered for a Prize, a written work shall have been issued in print or have been published in another form.”
  • Prizes may not be awarded posthumously but a Prize may still be presented if the Prize winner dies before the presentation ceremony.
  • Prizes may be shared between two or three co-workers or between two discoveries but not between more than three people.

The Foundation’s statutes also provide guidelines for nominations and adjudication of the awards. Nominations are not open to the public and to be considered for an award, a written nomination must be received from “a person competent to make such a nomination.” This includes all Nobel Laureates, members of the Prize-awarding bodies (the Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Karolinska Institute) and those invited to submit nominations. [6] Each Prize-awarding body sends out thousands of invitations every year to scientists world-wide, and a rotation system is used to include as many people as possible. Nominations for an award are then considered by a subset of the Prize-awarding body, the Nobel Committee, which consists of three to five persons appointed by the Prize-awarding body. After careful deliberation, the Nobel Committee votes to determine which candidate should be recommended for the award. Although the final…