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When Nobel Laureates Earn Their Awards

Winners in the Physiology or Medicine category are trending older, even though they’re completing their award-winning research when they are about the same age, according to an analysis.

Oct 3, 2016
Jef Akst

WIKIMEDIA, DAVID MONNIAUXComparing winners from 1950 to 1982 with winners 1983 to 2015, Robert Redelmeier of McMaster University in Ontario and C. David Naylor of the University of Toronto investigated how the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has changed over the years. Among their results, the researchers found that recent laureates were, on average, 7.6 years older than laureates awarded between 1950 and 1982. That could be because the Nobel committee is taking more time to recognize worthy discoveries sooner after they are made, the data suggested.

Their analysis, published today (October 3) in JAMA, coincides with the awarding of this year’s medicine prize to the Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Yoshinori Ohsumi for his research on autophagy. “Major awards such as the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine may help motivate successive generations of scientists and deepen public awareness and political support for research,” Redelmeier and Naylor wrote. “However, little is known about how decisions of prize-giving bodies have changed as medical science has globalized and biotechnology accelerated.”

Focusing on laureates from 1950 to 2015, Redelmeier and Naylor identified a 154 winners—79 in the older subgroup and 75 that have won in the last 33 years. The duo then identified each laureate’s top five most-cited papers and developed an algorithm to determine the year best representing the period when each laureate’s landmark publications appeared. Comparing these data, the authors found that the mean age at time of landmark publications was not significantly different between the two groups of laureates. The average delay from landmark publications to the time of that the work was recognized with a Nobel Prize was 6.6 years longer in the younger group—just one year less than the difference in average age between the two groups.

“[J]udging a discovery to be Nobel-worthy in recent years may rely more heavily on the test of time, given the accelerating pace of medical research, the growing global population of scientists, and higher evidentiary standards before clinical translation occurs,” Redelmeier and Naylor wrote. “Whatever the cause, these trends may slow the pace of geographic and gender diversification of Nobel laureates.”

Of the 154 laureates examined, for example, only 11 were women. Moreover, 91 percent were born in the United States, United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, Canada, or New Zealand, and 12 of the 14 laureates not born in one of these countries completed their MD, PhD, or postdoctoral training in North America, Europe, or Australia, the researchers noted. 

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