or 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.”

Leave a Comment

Please enter your name.
Please enter a comment.

  • The answer is no, we don’t need the Nobels; makes no impact whether science will continue to exist or not. In fact, its disappearance may even do the field a tremendous favor.

  • The Nobel only rewards those of privileged backgrounds, who have influence, and can publish on high profile journals. It inspires competition among those in this particular arena of scientists, who are not necessarily leaders. It is not very hard to find that some are actually scum, who went about acquiring science underhandedly and without true authorship and even driven servant labor among subordinates. Let’s not forget, some winners have actually set a bad example for the rest regarding what is fair and unfair.

    To award an institution with the Noble is equally depressing because, unless the university or organization that allowed for the science to take place actually did so without a price (cost for overhead, etc.) or even ownership of the discoveries taking place, it will just reap additional benefits like BUSINESS as usual.

    In general, the Nobels are like the Emmy’s, Oscars, and Tonys of the world – for commercial value more than anything else.

  • Hiring the fraudulent trachea surgeon was probably wrong, but how is that tainting the Nobels? Are the authors paid by word count, or is Dr Oransky using any attack line he could find? Nobels are not US elections, so there is no need to lower the level of the discussion.

Sign up for our Morning Rounds newsletter

Your daily dose of news in health and medicine