How to almost win a Nobel Prize

It is time to break the illusion of Nobel prizes in the sciences.

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This week, three Oxford University academics have been awarded Nobel Prizes for their contribution to the fields of chemistry and medicine. In chemistry, Oxford Professor John Goodenough and DPhil graduate M Stanley Wittingham shared the prize for their contributions to the development of lithium-ion batteries, and in medicine the prize was shared by Professor Sir Peter J Radcliffe, for his discovery of how cells detect and respond to low oxygen levels, known as ‘hypoxia’. This brings the Nobel Prize tally for Oxford-associated academics up to 72, more than France has achieved in total. Should we be celebrating? Not yet.

In science, awards committees generally favour discoveries and contributions by an individual over an entire career. With the rise of global scientific collaboration, research papers can have tens if not hundreds of authors, so it is down to the committee to decide which scientist has made the most significant contribution. This system relies so heavily on the judgement of a select and secretive group of individuals that it has been argued that their decisions have been fraught with mistakes and omissions. Notable non-awards tend to fall into two categories: scientists who contributed to a Nobel-worthy breakthrough only to be overshadowed by colleagues or competitors, and scientists who simply set out after a problem the committee didn’t consider Nobel-worthy.

The reason for non-awards in the first category is oft suggested to be so because of the tendency of science and especially the Nobel Foundation, to be so white, male and Eurocentric. Of the 209 Nobel Laureates in physics, only three have been women, and each has shared the honour with two male colleagues; Marie Curie in 1903 for her work on radiation, Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963 for work on the nuclear shell atomic model and Donna Strickland last year for work on pulsed lasers. Professor of Astrophysics and Fellow at Mansfield College, Oxford, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, credited for the discovery of pulsars, was famously snubbed for the Nobel Prize in 1974, when it was instead awarded to her supervisor. In an interview with Cherwell earlier this year, Bell Burnell recalled her experiences as a grad student, recounting that “one of the reasons [she] was feeling an imposter was that [she] was a minority.” Not only are the Nobel committee so depressingly conventional, but the entire culture around academic science actively discourages the progression of women and minorities beyond undergraduate level. From prejudiced supervisors to department-wide bias, it’s uncommonly impressive that Bell Burnell and other female scientists have broken through such a hostile academic climate at all.

In the second case, we are increasingly shown that being honoured with the Nobel Prize is partly down to luck and the whim of the committee. Conveniently, the Nobel Foundation operates under a secrecy clause, and will not reveal the names of nominees or any information about the nominations until fifty years later. For several decades, the Foundation did not regard astronomy as a Nobel-worthy discipline which is thought to explain the glaring omissions of Edwin Hubble and George Hale from the honours in physics. In 2014, the prize was awarded to three Japanese scientists, Shuji Nakamura, Hiroshi Amano, Isamu Akasaki, for their invention of the blue LED light, which together with the red and the green LED, made energy-efficient bright white LED lighting possible. The inventors of the red and the green LED did not receive a Nobel Prize. Even if you are a 61-year-old American male Harvard professor (revealed to be the most likely winning Nobel combination by BBC Future), it often seems that whether or not you win the prize is largely random.

While the Nobel Prizes in science seek to recognise the individual or group “who made the most important discovery or invention in the field of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine”, as specified in Alfed Nobel’s will, it is time to break the illusion of the Nobel Prizes in science. They are not impartial, objective anointments of the best and the brightest of the world. We must recognise them for what they are, awards as academically partisan as they are scientific.