edward tenner, a frequent contributor to the Review, is a research affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and Rutgers University.
Published October 18, 2023
Every year the announcement of the Nobel Prizes energizes two responses. The first is the front-page announcement (and digital equivalent) of the winners and their contributions. Here, Nobel news is in a class of its own. The prestigious Fields Medal and Abel Prize in mathematics, the Turing Prize in computer science, the tech moguls’ lavish Breakthrough Prizes, the Nobel-candidate Lasker Award in biomedical sciences, the follow-up Crafoord Prize for Nobel-deprived scientific disciplines, Japan’s Nobel alternatives (the Kyoto Prize and the splendidly latinate Praemium Imperiale), the Royal Society’s ultra-exclusive Copley Medal — all are cherished by insiders yet seldom highlighted by general-interest media.
Then there is the second, shadow side of Nobel journalism, the opinion and analytical calling for reform of the prizes and sometimes even questioning their value for scientific progress. Last month, The Wall Street Journal published a two-page manifesto by the historian of medicine David Oshinsky, himself a Pulitzer honoree, titled “The Nobel Prizes Need a Makeover.” On the same date, The New York Times published an essay by a young PhD physicist, Katrina Miller, with the startling title, “Nobel Prize May Hinder Its Winners.”
After reviewing some of the secretive Nobel Committees’ more questionable choices for the Literature and Peace prizes, Oshinsky proceeded to a paradoxical indictment summarizing the opinions of “informed observers” that radical change was needed. Oshinsky says the Nobel program ignores environmental sciences, computing, robotics and artificial intelligence, and thus (quoting the astronomer Martin Rees) “distort[s] the public perception of what sciences are important.”
But do nonscientists really believe that computing and artificial intelligence are unimportant? Isn’t it instead the once-glamorous fields of physics and chemistry that could use more public recognition? By the same token, might it also make sense to honor an entire laboratory rather than one, two or three individuals? While Oshinsky does not make this point, this reform would also do justice to glassblowers, technicians and other insanely skilled craftspeople whose input has often been crucial for breakthrough discoveries.
Nobelists in Their Anecdotage?
Miller takes a different tack. The prizes are supposed to encourage creativity, she says, but the post-award consequences are disappointing. Miller cites research by the Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis, who concluded of the Nobel Prizes and the MacArthur Fellowship winners’ later publication records: “These awards do not seem to enhance the productivity of the scientists. If anything, it seems to have the opposite effect.” The rate of publication in each case holds steady, but the post-award papers are cited less often — the opposite of what we would might expect given the higher post-prize status of the authors.
Miller might have mentioned another criticism of prizes in general — that as “extrinsic rewards” they distort rather than enhance performance and can also lead to hypercompetition that discourages collaboration. The social psychologist Carol Dweck has presented evidence that intrinsic rewards, the excitement of research, is more conducive to creative growth than extrinsic ones like prizes — a point elaborated on by the Alfie Kohn, a prominent critic of American education, made in his 1993 book Punished by Rewards.
We can cite the abuse of the prestige of the prize by figures in the shameful pronouncements of winners, including Linus Pauling’s support of eugenics and James D. Watson’s for being racist and sexist. These embarrassments are good, in my view, because they demonstrate the fallibility of the organization and console the rejected.
Greed Is Good
The open question is whether we can measure the extent to which Nobel Prizes have motivated science careers. Science graduate school can be a formidable obstacle course — and one too often followed by insecure, low-paid post-doc fellowships rather than tenure-track jobs. It is possible that glittering awards, no matter how long the odds, may be a key incentive. Thus, the possible post-Stockholm decline in productivity noted by Ioannidis may be a small price to pay for having recruited a gifted young man or woman to basic science as opposed to some more lucrative pursuit.
I am inclined to turn Oshinsky’s argument on its head, to suggest that the imperfections of the Nobel bequest and the occasional omissions are as much a feature as a bug. Do we really want to live in a perfectly fair world? Consider the 95 percent of college applicants this fall that who will be rejected by Harvard. If Harvard’s admissions officers were accurate predictors of future accomplishment, the thin envelope would portend a less glorious destiny. But most people are aware of the caprice inherent in judging the lifetime prospects of young people. Some of them even know that Harvard turned down Warren Buffett.
Told Ya So
Elite science is also filled with disappointments. It is an indispensable consolation to know that august institutions have often been wrong. Oshinsky cites the omission of Jonas Salk, repeatedly nominated but rejected because his polio vaccine had been based on others’ ideas rather than a novel principle. The injustice of this denial did not diminish Salk’s public esteem, and Salk treated it with humor rather than resentment. Conversely, it would be well to ponder the award for physiology or medicine to the Portuguese neurologist Antonio Egas Moniz for pioneering the horrific prefrontal lobotomy as a cure-all for mental illness.
The deadpan Nobel website biography barely acknowledges the cruelty of the surgery and the controversy over its use, and revocation of the prize seems out of the question. And almost 75 years after the fact, such a gesture would help no sufferer. But false positives, like false negatives, make clear that the judges are only human. The same can be said of the omission of the pathbreaking physicist Lisa Meitner, a victim of sexism and anti-Semitism. Conversely, we can cite the abuse of the prestige of the prize by figures in the shameful pronouncements of winners, including Linus Pauling’s support of eugenics and James D. Watson’s for being racist and sexist. These embarrassments are good, in my view, because they demonstrate the fallibility of the organization and console the rejected.
Finally, the apparent arbitrariness of the Nobel awards has a hidden positive side: enhancing vindication. Katalin Karikó, the Hungarian-born American co-laureate for physiology or medicine in 2023 for her work on messenger RNA vaccines, had been a second-class citizen at the University of Pennsylvania for decades, deemed by Penn administrators “not faculty quality.” The embarrassment of her employer must make the prize even sweeter — as it was for the beleaguered Australian physicians Barry Marshall and Robin Warren who won the prize in 2005 for their long-ignored evidence that the bacterium H. pylori caused peptic ulcers.
Nobody wants a radically unjust world. But occasional injustice has something to be said for it.