The Nobel prizes are in need of a makeover


With all due respect to the recipients of this year's Nobel prizes -- telomeres are more than worthy of our attention -- it's time for an overhaul of the whole thing.

Complaints about the outdated categories that ignore an enormous range of scientific endeavors appear each year at this time, and it's unlikely that the latest barrage of criticism will result in any real change. Still, there are plenty of good argument in favor of reform. Here's one.

New Scientist asked a group of notable scientists and authors for their thoughts on the subject. They came up with a letter pointing out the obvious:

When Alfred Nobel signed his will in 1895, he could not have anticipated threats such as climate change and HIV/AIDS. Nor could he have known of the new scientific disciplines that are generating results that will transform our world for the better.

Many of these fields, as well as these challenges, do not fit well into the remit of the prizes that he created. If the World Health Organization were to eradicate malaria, for example, the achievement might not qualify for any of the existing prizes. Fundamental breakthroughs in areas such as neuroscience and ecology, some of which will eventually help tackle the threats mentioned above, are also going unrecognized.

and suggesting:

1. The creation of Nobel prizes for the Global Environment and Public Health. The new prizes would focus on applications of science rather than basic research. As with the existing peace prize, organisations would be eligible. The environment prize would recognise successes in promoting sustainability, mitigating climate change or reducing biodiversity losses. The public health prize would recognise improvements in global health, such as the reduction or eradication of disease. (We present these lists as examples; they are not intended to be complete).

2. The expansion of, or an addition to, the prize for physiology or medicine to recognise contributions from across the life sciences. Fields that are currently excluded, such as ecology, would become eligible. More emphasis would be placed on the rapidly expanding field of neuroscience. This could be achieved by expanding the existing prize for medicine or physiology or by the addition of new prizes for fundamental biology (including ecology, genetics and cellular, molecular and evolutionary biology) and behavioral science (including psychology and neuroscience).

The signatories are:
Larry Brilliant, President, Skoll Urgent Threats Fund and advisor,
Rodney Brooks, Panasonic Professor of Robotics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and founder of iRobot Corp and Heartland Robotics.
Peter Diamandis, Chairman and CEO, X PRIZE Foundation.
Tim Hunt, Cell Cycle Control Laboratory, Cancer Research UK.
David King, Director, Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford.
Lynn Margulis, Distinguished University Professor, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor, Harvard University.
Peter Raven, Director, Missouri Botanical Garden.
Frans de Waal, Director, Living Links Center and C. H. Candler Professor of Psychology, Emory University.
E. O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Professor, Emeritus, Harvard University.

I second their motion, particularly the one about a prize for research on the global environment. Indeed, why not set up one specifically for climatology? Can you think of a more pressing public policy challenge that will require significant input from scientists?

One could argue that the existing prizes in chemistry and physics already afford an opportunity for materials scientists working with nanotechnology, for example, to win for producing a dramatically cheaper way to harvest solar energy or suck carbon from the atmosphere. But that still means climate-friendly technology breakthroughs would be competing each year with an endless variety of other interesting but less critical fields. Given the attention that a Nobel prize brings to scientists and their work, it only seems appropriate to use that free publicity to focus more media resources on the climate crisis on an annual schedule.

The Nobel committee has already tacity acknowledged the difficulties posed by the century-old categories by awarding last year's Peace Prize to the IPCC and Al Gore, even though it seems doubtful that the peace category was established for that kind of thing. Let's stop trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole and give the climate its own category.

More like this

The medicine prize is already fairly stretched as it is. The idea of incorporating more competing disciplines into it would not only dilute the current status of the prize but would also be unwieldy to manage. Besides, there already has been a move here in Sweden to create new sets of prizes available for scientists in disciplines normally absent from the Nobels. It's just that these prizes are not called 'Nobel' but 'Crafoord' prizes.

Yeah. Has always struck me as bizarre that there's a Nobel Prize for Physiology Or Medicine* but not one for Biology. And climatology could do with one, too.

* "Or" is part of the name.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 05 Oct 2009 #permalink

Still no Nobel for mathematics... and no reason not to be one. Yeah I know there's the Fields medal, but it's not the same.

By Nathaniel Dean (not verified) on 05 Oct 2009 #permalink

Aren't the Nobel Prizes supposed to reward basic science research? There are other awards such as the goteborg ( that reward environmental research. Past winners include Al Gore (hmm, questionable) and the engineers of the Prius (much better).

It seems to me that the greater issue is to increase the prestige and cache of alternative applied research and policy awards while letting the Nobels deal with basic research. These are completely different modes of doing science, and they are both equally important. It's just that the Nobel gets a lot of attention due to history, so the solution is unclear.

I don't have an answer on how to get the applied research/policy implementation awards more fame, but that is a reflection of lay society's perception of scientists as being a bunch of geniuses who toil away on obscure problems with the fond hope of making an amazing breakthrough (and winning a Nobel!). There are great numbers of scientists who work on applying knowledge for the benefit of society. They don't get much credit, or worse, get called names like "bureaucrat"!

I don't think expanding the Nobel prizes is really necessary, nor is it desirable. Alfred Nobel laid out the fields he saw as worthy of recognition very clearly in his will, and additions aren't possible because the purpose of the Nobel Foundation is to carry out that will. The only late addition, the "Nobel Memorial Prize" in economics, is not a Nobel prize and is endowed by the Swedish central bank rather than the Nobel foundation, and is still criticized whenever it's awarded. Any new prizes would not be "Nobels".

Moreover, other fields have always had their own awards. Examples include the Fields medal in math, and the Turing Award for computer science. New prizes can be created for fields like global health without having to be Nobel prizes. And while they get a lot of attention, the purpose of the Nobel has always been to recognize achievement rather than gain notoriety.

Changing the Nobel pirzes are as Adam described hard, but you can change interpretations. In 1973 Karl von Frisch, Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen got the medicine prize for "for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behavior patterns" that is ethology.

The Nobel prices are already very stretched from their original idea of awarding "recent discoveries". By now it takes 20 - 30 years for an idea to be considered Nobel - worthy, don't make your discovery late in life or you die before you're formally recognized. If you keep adding fields to it for consideration the only people getting recognized are former child protegees now in their 90s.

According to the web site of the organization awarding the Nobels, "physiology or medicine" is a fairly broad category, and this is not accidental. The organization considers that "physiology" in Nobel's terms includes quite a bit of biology.

If a scientist came up with a practical cure for malaria, that would be eligible for the physiology or medicine prize. If WHO implemented it, they could well get a Peace Prize--and we know that the Peace Prize can be given to research and advocacy on climate change.

"When Alfred Nobel signed his will in 1895, he could not have anticipated threats such as climate change and HIV/AIDS."

I disagree with this statement. HIV/AIDS is a terrible disease, which puts it in the same league as diseases Alfred Nobel surely was aware of, such as smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis, measles, bubonic plague, etc. And I'm pretty sure climate- and weather-related natural disasters, such as floods, hurricanes, and major forest fires would have been something he knew about as well. The last ice age had been described by geologists working in the second half of the 19th century; if he'd been familiar with that work at all, and had thought about it, I'm sure Alfred Nobel could have devoted some time/effort/money to the concept of climate change.

If Alfred Nobel had intended to award prizes in applied research in key fields, he could have done so. I thought the Nobel prizes were always about basic research, about discoveries and accomplishments with great benefits beyond solving one relatively narrow problem.

I don't want to imply that "climate change" is a narrow problem, but it does seem more applied and specific in its purview than does "chemistry".

By TheBrummell (not verified) on 05 Oct 2009 #permalink

Let's face it, the people who voted to give Gore a share of the Nobel Prize weren't voting for Gore, it was a symbolic protest to show their hatred of Bush.

(Not that there's anything wrong with that. :D :D )

There are great numbers of scientists who work on applying knowledge for the benefit of society. They don't get much credit, or worse, get called names like "bureaucrat"!

Buck and Axel won for odorant receptors; how is neurobiology being ignored?

By hip hip array (not verified) on 05 Oct 2009 #permalink

Looking at the Nobel Prize website they state that Nobel's will stipulated that the prize be given to:

"the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine"

They appear to read this as meaning a discovery about basic biology, or human disease that leads to or has the clear potential to result in improvements to medicine. having said that there are apparent exceptions, such as the award to Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield for their work on MRI, since that was about the development of a (very important) technology rather than a discovery about a particular aspect of biology.

Would Darwin have been given the prize for his work? I think he would probably have got it for physiology, with a title such as "his discoveries concerning the evolution of living organisms", though perhaps his work might have been considered a little too theoretical in his lifetime...much of the experimental confirmation came later (and Nobel's have covered some of these discoveries).

One area which really does seem under represented without IMHO good reason is surgery, sure there have been prizes awarded for discoveries in immunology and blood types that were highly relevant to surgery, but where are the awards to John Gibbon, Norman Shumway, John Connoly and Richard Lewisohn? I suppose the respones was that their mainly work concerned the development of techniques and technologies rather than discoveries about biology, but then there have been other prizes such as the one for MRI and the 2007 award for discovering the "principles for introducing specific gene modifications in mice by the use of embryonic stem cells" would also tend to fit this description...for some of the recipients at least.

Overall I'd have to say that I'm sympathetic to the idea of splitting the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology into a Medicine award that is focused on translational medicine, technology, epidemiology, surgery and public health and a Physiology/Biology award that focuses on basic science and brings in fields such as evolutionary biology and (more) neuroscience.

That said I'm not too concerned about it, the Prize works well as it is and I take the approach that if it isn't broken why fix it. If there is a priority I think it has to be the creation of an "environment" prize, that would also cover issues such as food production, along the lines of the prize in Economics. In the meanwhile perhaps some of the other big prizes (Fields medal etc.) could team up in some way to establish a stronger identity.

Rather than climatology specifically, how about Earth science in general? Some years it would certainly go to climatologists, but discoveries related to plate tectonics, etc. are truly worth of a Nobel Prize.

This already exists (almost).

See the Right Livelihood Award (aka the Alternative Nobel Prize). These are given out in Stockholm at the Swedish Parliament at the same time as the Nobel Prizes, and they are supported in part by the Nobel family.

The prize is given to four people each year "for outstanding vision and work on behalf of our planet and its people." There are no categories.

It would be excellent if the Right Livelihood Award could get more attention. It would help if the prize amount was increased to the same level as the Nobel Prizes (currently its only 150k euro, shared among four), and if the name could be changed to something like the Nobel Prize for Society and Ecology.,,2263642,00.html

@David MarjanoviÄ

If you're going to be a nitpicker, at least be right. It doesn't matter if "or" is in the title. It's still not capitalized, check your basic style rules.

Anyway, the people who actually give out the award don't capitalize the "or" (check the website).