For science watchers, this week is like the Oscars, the Emmys, and all the birthdays rolled into one. In its annual flurry of surprise phone calls to astonished researchers, the Nobel Prize committees have named their winners, including the science awards in physics, chemistry and medicine.
The Nobels are intended to reward researchers for their contributions to humankind with a hefty cash windfall, no strings attached. They’re great for scientists, obviously, and their proud mothers. But are they good for science? That’s less clear.
Critics fairly point out that the prizes serve to elevate one, two, or, at most, three researchers into the pantheon of glory — and relegate the work of their collaborators to the unmentioned appendices. (Especially if other worthies had the misfortune of dying too early, since Nobel rules stipulate against posthumous awards.) In the process, they ignore the fact that science is rarely, if ever, an individual endeavor. Rather it’s the teamiest of team sports, with occasional solo breakthroughs, surely, but far more often the product of group effort.
In a 2013 article in the FASEB Journal, immunologists Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang argued that the Nobel Prize “epitomizes the winner-takes-all economics of credit allocation and distorts the history of science by personalizing discoveries that are truly made by groups of individuals.”
Not surprisingly, the authors noted, the Nobels are also plagued by controversy, breeding resentments among researchers whose efforts the committees decided not to acknowledge. “A simple solution to this problem,” the pair proposed, “would be to eliminate the restriction on the number of individuals who could be awarded the prize, a measure that would recognize all who contribute, from students to senior investigators.”
Another option, the editors of Scientific American have pointed out, would be to allow the science Nobels to go to organizations instead of individuals. The Nobel Peace Prize has taken this tack by, for instance, giving the European Union and Doctors Without Borders some of its previous awards. In science, that could mean an award for a university or a research initiative.
That the rules of the Nobel should be changed is not a new argument. Nature made it in 1975, arguing that they are unequally awarded and tend to go to those who are already prominent. And other, more modern problems have cropped up for the awards. Earlier this year, one Nobel committee member stepped down because of his involvement in hiring a fraudulent trachea surgeon at the Karolinska Institutet, and there have been calls for other resignations for similar reasons.
Nor do the occasional inevitable missteps of the Nobel committees and the problematic ramblings of some of its recipients seem to have dulled the prizes’ luster.
But we’d counter that it’s not necessarily a bad thing to single out a few people for extraordinary work — as long as more opportunities exist for doling out deserved credit. The problem, as we and others have noted, is that such avenues are scarce in science. Indeed, one of the only awards for collaboration is an upstart prize called the Parasite, which is intended to “recognize outstanding contributions to the rigorous secondary analysis of data.” Hard to take seriously with such a tongue-in-cheek name — but we should.
So along with “better luck next year,” it’s worth heeding the words of Nobelist Richard Feynman: “Of course, I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize. I’ve already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out. The kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things.”