We won’t know the thinking behind this year’s Nobel Prizes for at least 50 years, which is how long the Nobel Foundation keeps the archives for each year’s prizes (including such juicy details as who nominated whom for what) closed.
But we do know that virtually every prognosticator — those suggesting CRISPR, cancer immunotherapy, lithium ion batteries, or gravitational waves, for instance — got the science Nobel predictions wrong.
So, while we wait for 2066 to roll around so we can see the inside workings that propelled this year’s surprise winners to victory, we’ve extracted four lessons from the 2016 prizes.
1. All in good time.
The work honored this year started in the early 1970s (physics’ topological phases of matter), the early 1980s (chemistry’s molecular machines), and the early 1990s (medicine). That’s an awful lot of science the Nobel committees still need to get through, making it obvious, with 20/20 hindsight, that a more recent achievement like the detection of gravitational waves or breakthroughs in cancer immunotherapy will likely be stuck at the back of the line for a while.
Thomson Reuters, the data company that every year issues a “citations laureates” list that serves as a tipsheet to Nobel contenders, notes a similar backlog. Their list of scientists pegged as possible winners, based on how often their work has been cited by other researchers, runs to 63 names for medicine. It includes such titans as Bert Vogelstein and Robert Weinberg (cancer genetics); Francis Collins, Eric Lander, and J. Craig Venter (the human genome project); Alec Jeffreys (DNA fingerprinting, which has transformed criminal justice) … you get the idea. All of their seminal work also goes back to the 1990s or earlier.
If you’re tempted to bet on a more recent discovery such as CRISPR, ask yourself: Is it really more transformative than, say, the 1963 discovery of adult stem cells?
2. Don’t make waves.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which selects the physics and chemistry laureates, and the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute, which chooses the physiology/medicine winner, do not like controversy. When their colleagues at the peace prize committee were about to select Gandhi in 1947, said historian David Pratt, author of the book “Nobel Laureates: The Secret of Their Success,” they got word that he was abandoning peaceful civil disobedience in favor of violent confrontation with the British colonial forces in India. The committee panicked and gave the prize to the American Friends Service Committee instead.
The committee for the medicine prize was burned by its controversial 2003 prize, which recognized the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). It probably doesn’t want a repeat.
Aversion to controversy likely nixed the chances of the CRISPR crowd (Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley; Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin; Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and George Church of Harvard). Scientific credit for developing the revolutionary genome-editing system is tangled up in an ugly patent fight. The Swedes won’t let a bunch of patent lawyers guide their selection, but since the documents and testimony from the patent case might shed more light on who made the key contributions, the prize committee might well wait until all of those are available and the picture is clearer.
3. Be a top dog.
That old saying about standing on the shoulders of giants? Anyone who wants a Nobel had better have big shoulders. In explaining its choice for the chemistry prize, the Royal Society said that the progress achieved in molecular machines “would not have been possible without the vision and pioneering work” of Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Fraser Stoddart, and Bernard Feringa. The Nobel committees “do seem to tilt toward the pioneers and away from those who extend, however importantly, that initial discovery or insight,” said David Pendlebury, who compiles the Thomson Reuters citation laureates.
4. Do one thing superbly.
Nobels almost never follow the model of the Oscar’s Lifetime Achievement award — the prize committees are interested in a seminal, specific discovery, not a wide-ranging collection of smaller successes. There has been lots of chatter about chemical engineer Robert Langer of MIT, for example, as a potential winner. He has won a slew of other prizes for pioneering inventions in transdermal drug delivery, polymer-based controlled drug release, tissue engineering, and more. But ironically, the breadth of his body of work over many decades might work against him with the Nobel committees, which seem to look for a single transformative discovery.