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Has Science Outgrown the Nobels?

Amid Nobel Prize announcements this week, critics find awarding individuals in specific disciplines at odds with today’s interdisciplinary, team-led research.  

By | October 10, 2012

Three Nobel Laureates in Physics. From left to right: Albert A. Michelson, Albert Einstein and Robert A. Millikan. Wikimedia, Smithsonian InstitutionThe Nobel committees’ cap of three winners per prize will unavoidably leave out critical contributors to profound discoveries as more scientists work in diverse teams, according to a handful of editorials and opinion pieces released this week (October 8).

An editorial in Scientific American, published Monday (October 8), argued that the days of the lone, brilliant scientist are over. “Whereas a century ago a patent clerk famously divined the theory of relativity in his spare time, discovering a Higgs boson requires decades of planning and the efforts of 6,000 researchers,” the editors wrote. “No one person—no troika, even—can legitimately claim all the credit.”

The editorial directly recounts the argument that Athene Donald, an experimental physicist at the University of Cambridge, made in a commentary in the Telegraph last month (September 17), also citing the Higgs boson discovery as an exemplary challenge to the Nobel committee’s three-awardee limit. “It’s not just theorists who contributed to the ‘discovery’ of the Higgs Boson,” she wrote. “None of them would be in the running for the prize if it weren’t for the multi-disciplinary, international teams that built the LHC [Large Hadron Collider]. Such large teams are increasingly typical of the way the major breakthroughs are being made.”

The editors of Scientific American—who referred to the Nobel Prize as a “charming anachronism”—claim that a limitless award, or an award that honors a team of researchers would solve the problem and bring the Nobel Prizes up to pace with science. Yet, the authors don’t provide any guidance for defining a team member, or determining a cut-off point for a limitless award.

Others take the issue further still, pointing out that the very titles of the awards may be problematic. In an opinion piece for The Guardian, published Monday (October 8), physicist Jim Al-Khalili of the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom, argued that the interdisciplinary, team-led science of the day shouldn’t have to lend itself to a single discipline, such as chemistry or medicine. “Boundaries between the sciences are blurring,” Al-Khalili wrote. “Why not just reward the best research, rather than pigeonholing disciplines?” He suggested that the Nobel committee introduce new award categories each year as science trends dictate.

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Comments

Avatar of: Curculio

Curculio

Posts: 48

October 10, 2012

Nobel Peace Prizes have been almost routinely given to organizations and groups, with important leaders of these coalitions also being recognized.  Perhaps, the Nobel committee will decide likewise to give a prize to CERN, NIH or NSF, for examples for findings that could not have been made possible due to the enormity of the projects. 

Avatar of: DVSathe

DVSathe

Posts: 1

October 17, 2012

Expanding the Novel Prize to teams is, I think, is not a good idea - certainly - because it is very likely to become a game of rich scientists / organizations in some years. More over prizes may not go to really seminal ideas. Let me note the Letter of C. Sharp Cook in the American J. Physics, March 1980. According to his investigation, number of significant discoveries in science has decreased after 1970. This is indirectly evident in ever-increasing cost of research and I think we have to oppose this trend. 

Cyclotron was a really good brain-child of Ernest Lawrence and deserved a Nobel. For some years, I am looking for such an idea.

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