Image: Anne MacNamara
"The history of modern science might be written without going outside the names of the Nobels."
The Nobel Prize earned universal prestige a mere five years after its inception. With the 102nd Nobel awards this month, the Nobel Foundation continues to lavish acclaim among a thin upper crust of innovators in the life sciences. But the tradition of the science community's grumbling at the Foundation for its omissions will no doubt proceed unabated in the wake of this year's announcements.
"I think the Nobel has become an exaggerated symbol of scientific excellence. They are very restricted by numbers and fields," says Harriet Zuckerman, author of Scientific Elite, the classic look at the Nobel Prize, its winners, and the well-defined stratification it has caused in 20th-century science.2
THE QUEST FOR A NOBEL The Nobel statutes call for just three prizes to be awarded in six fields, none of which include broad disciplines such as marine science, mathematics, and astronomy. Even if the paucity of the awards makes it very lonely at the top, winning a Nobel can vault a scientist to wizard-like status, prompting many researchers to continue their climb into that secluded stratosphere of science.
But getting to the top requires more than top-flight research. Like a board game to which the box top containing the rules was lost long ago, no one definitively knows how to win a Nobel. The Prize for physiology or medicine is determined by a five-person committee at the Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm. The committee gathers in secrecy to decide from a pool of hundreds of worthwhile candidates who are the world's best scientists. The subjective nature of the selection process has met with mixed reviews.
"What stimulates people to dominate is that their nomination isn't known," says Elisabeth Crawford, senior research fellow at the National Science Research Center in Strasbourg, France, who conducted extensive research on the Nobel archives since KI opened them to scholars in 1974. "With all the feuds already in the scientific world, actually knowing who is and who isn't nominated would be absolutely terrible for the system."
Although there is no official announcement of one’s nomination, many scientists recognize their contention for the award. Some would argue that the infamous case of Salvador Moncada is what makes the system look bad. Moncada was named a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences in 1994 for his work in discovering the physiological role of nitric oxide. Two years later, the Lasker award for basic medical research went to Robert Furchgott and Ferid Murad for their fundamental research on nitric oxide. Historically, as many as five researchers are permitted to share a Lasker award, but curiously, with three slots available and prior commendation in the same field, Moncada didn't receive an invite.
Several studies based on rankings of citations and awards have been apt prognosticators of the Nobel.3 In 1998, the Lasker awards lived up to its reputation of being a bellwether for the Nobel (47% of the basic Lasker winners have won the Nobel4) as Furchgott and Murad, along with Louis Ignarro, won the prize in medicine for their work on nitric oxide.
Moncada is one of about 25 scientists cited in more than 25,000 publications from 1981 to 1994, and he was elected to the NAS years before the Nobel winners in his field were.5 With his omission, a firestorm of controversy erupted in the scientific community. "He'll never get it now," laments one of Moncada's backers. "His work has been recognized, and once history has been written, there's no way of going back."
"We give out the prizes and that's that," says Agneta Sjovall, an administrator at KI. Sjovall says that Karolinska's policy requires document confidentiality of the committee's decisions for 50 years before being released publicly. The delay prevents the appeal of a decision and deflects any negative publicity stirred up by disgruntled losers.
Still, Moncada's colleagues, including past Nobel laureates, immediately protested his omission, some citing political manipulation of the committee. Moncada is just one of many scientists who know they are worthy of the Nobel and feel slighted when they don't get it.
"I have to confess some disappointment to being left off," says James Darnell, Vincent Astor Professor, Rockefeller University. In 1993 his colleagues Richard Roberts and Phillip Sharp won the Nobel Prize in medicine for laying the foundation for the understanding of gene splicing. Darnell, like Moncada at the 1996 Laskers, was not recognized with an award despite a vacant slot. "But I'm still tremendously happy to have lived through the times when this problem was focused on and solved," says Darnell, "more than I regret not winning the Nobel with Phil and Rich."
PRESSING ONWARD Others who have been shafted by the Nobel committee prefer to brush any chips off their shoulders and continue with their work. "It's difficult to criticize a [Nobel] prize if you haven't won it," says Yoshio Masui, whose work in discovering maturation promotion factor, the factor that spurs cells to divide during meiosis, was overlooked as three others took home the 2001 Nobel Prize in medicine for "discoveries of key regulators of the cell cycle." Masui has remained even-keeled about the decision. "So, I found something interesting," Masui says. "I dug it up, but they cleaned it up."
The Nobel Foundation isn't blind to its numerous slights over the years. Alfred Nobel: the Man and his Prizes lists occupants of "the 41st chair," a term used in 19th century France as a way of describing the people who didn’t make it into the French Academy,2 which had 40 chairs around the table in its meeting room. In Scientific Elite, Zuckerman applies the term to scientists whose discoveries have been deemed “prizeworthy” by the Nobel committee and considered to be in contention for the Nobel, but have come up short of the prize.
Yet, an asterisk such as this in the history books may be proof that what initially appears as a snub is really just providing a proving ground for ones' research. Since the publication of the "prizeworthy" list in 1976, Stanley Cohen has been removed from it; he won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1986 for his work on growth factors.
"No one wins the first time they are nominated," says Crawford. "There are different criteria, longevity being one. They want to be absolutely certain that it's been confirmed experimentally." Crawford adds that the Nobel committee takes into consideration additional criteria, such as whether a discovery has engendered any others, and whether scientists are still active and productive in research. "They don't want the Nobel to be a pension," says Crawford.
THREE'S THE LIMIT In the meantime, many still debate why three is the magic number for the Nobel. Zuckerman believes that it is an arbitrary number. "The theory articulated to me by the Nobel Foundation was that it's always possible to identify one or two prime movers in any particular scientific contribution," Zuckerman says.
With research becoming more group oriented, more deserving people will be left out as individuals are singled out for awards. Nevertheless, Nobel or not, scientists such as Darnell will continue doing what they love, "People don't devote their lives to science because of a prize anyway," Darnell says.
Hal Cohen can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. E. Crawford, "Nobel: Always the winners, never the losers," Science, 282:1256-7, 1998.
2. H. Zuckerman, Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the United States, 2nd ed., New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1996, p. 300.
3. D. Pendlebury, "The 1989 Nobel Prize in medicine: 20 who deserve it," The Scientist, 3:14, Oct. 2, 1989.
5. E. Garfield, "Of Nobel class: Part 1. An overview of ISI studies on highly cited authors and Nobel laureates," Current Contents, 41:116-26, 1992. http://www.garfield.library.upenn.edu/essays/v15p116y1992-93.pdf