October 23, 2021, 11:55

How the Nobel Prizes skew science

How the Nobel Prizes skew science

This week, various Swedish and Norwegian organizations are coming together to announce the Nobel Prizes — six awards in total, including four in the sciences. Each award comes with a medal, more than a million dollars, and lots of press.

In 2021, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian won the prize in physiology or medicine for research into the receptors that sense heat and touch in the human body. Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann, and Giorgio Parisi won the prize in physics for cutting through the chaos of climate science. And Benjamin List and David MacMillan won the prize in chemistry for tools that build molecules.

These are some of humanity’s highest-profile international prizes, and they can be a fantastic way to celebrate some of the greatest human achievements in science. But the Nobels are also far from perfect.

For some scientists, like the cosmologist Brian Keating, the mere existence of the Nobel Prize can distort the science they pursue. In his book, Losing the Nobel Prize, Keating connects a huge scientific retraction to the lure of the Nobel. In 2014, the team he was working with announced that, by studying photons from the early days of the universe, they had found an answer to a big mystery about how the universe first formed. The group then realized, just a few months later, that their results were likely the product of cosmic dust.

Keating argues that this embarrassing error happened because the team rushed to publish a little too quickly, instead of waiting and checking over data with a group of competing researchers. He says that, at least for his part in the decision to publish, the potential of being connected to a Nobel played a role in that rush. After all, the team of scientists who published first would be most likely to win the award, so there was little incentive to move slowly or to collaborate by sharing data.

For Devang Mehta, a synthetic biologist at the University of Alberta, the problems with the Nobels run even deeper. Unlike cosmologists, who often win the Nobel Prize in Physics, plant scientists like Mehta don’t usually compete for Nobel Prizes. Still, in an essay for Slate, he writes that the prizes color his scientific environment.

“There are negatives with the vision of science that they represent,” Mehta explains.

In the latest episode of the Unexplainable podcast, Mehta walks through those negatives and how the Nobel affects what researchers end up researching and how they do that research. He also suggests some potential fixes. Below is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length.

Noam Hassenfeld

Let’s start really basic. What is the Nobel Prize?

Devang Mehta

The Nobels are annual awards that have been given for about 100 years. They were established by Alfred Nobel’s will — he was a famous industrialist in Sweden. They’re worth about $1 million each. And they’re really the most prestigious award in science, at least in terms of reputation and the way they’re covered in the media.

Noam Hassenfeld

And when you think about the Nobel Prize, what do you think about?

Devang Mehta

I grew up in India, and when I was a kid, I still believed in the kind of vision of the Nobels. The Nobels really were portrayed in the media as this very objective measure of what is the best science happening in the world.

When I actually started practicing science — when I went to grad school and started doing my own research — I think that’s when I started rethinking my opinions and views about the Nobels.

Noam Hassenfeld

When I think about a prize that is supposed to be given to the best science, where everyone has the same chance to win — we know that life doesn’t normally work like that. Is that true here?

Devang Mehta

By country, we know that the UK and the US have the most Nobel Prizes, historically. That’s followed by Germany and France. Among Asian countries, Japan is the only one with more than 10 Nobel Prizes in science. [Scientists from Russia, which spans Europe and Asia, have also won more than 10 prizes in science.] There have been a few Black people who have won the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1979, a Black economist [Sir William Arthur Lewis], won the economics prize.

Noam Hassenfeld

But other than that, no Black scientists have won Nobels?

Devang Mehta

In physics, chemistry, or medicine, never. And the Nobels are extremely skewed by gender. So before this year, in medicine, about 12 prizes have gone to women out of over 200. Physics is worse. Only four have gone to women. So that’s like 2 percent, which is far below the number of women who actually work in physics.

Noam Hassenfeld

And far below the percentage of women in the population.

Devang Mehta

Exactly. So they’re definitely extremely skewed towards certain demographics.

Noam Hassenfeld

We’ve done episodes in the past about Vera Rubin and Henrietta Leavitt and Marie Tharp. They all made huge contributions to science, and none of them ever won Nobels. Which is obviously part of a larger, longer-term problem of sexism in science, but the Nobels don’t help.

Devang Mehta

No, they definitely don’t help. And I think they even make it worse because they kind of amplify that vision of science. That also affects how people view science and who can be a scientist.

I don’t mean to say that the people who win the Nobels don’t deserve them. I think they were definitely, definitely great scientists! But I also think the vision that the Nobels present to the world is that most science is really trivial or not that important. And then you have these few people coming along who really make major discoveries that push science far ahead of what it used to be.

Science in real life is built on teamwork, and it’s built on generational accrual of new knowledge. It doesn’t happen in leaps and occasional advances. It’s always progressing forward. None of that is actually represented in the Nobels.

In 2017, the prize in physics went to researchers of gravitational waves, and the actual endeavor to discover the gravitational waves required a lot of infrastructure — thousands of people, people working in engineering, people working in environmental science and physics, people from all over the world. It was an international collaboration. But the prize went to three people, I think mainly in the US.

It seems so ridiculous that the efforts of thousands of people were erased, almost, from the history books. Three people will be remembered as the people who discovered gravitational waves, even though that’s not really the case.

Noam Hassenfeld

If the vision that the Nobels are putting forward is so at odds with your experience of how actual science is done in the real world, do you think it hinders us in any way?

Devang Mehta

I think it’s definitely a problem because it affects how school kids read about science. When I was a kid, I really believed that you have to always compete with other people. Rather than what science actually is: We have so many things that we don’t know about the natural world. All of us could work on something different and just collaborate, and we would still not even scratch the surface of 1 percent of the unknown in the world.

Noam Hassenfeld

Do you think the fact that the Nobels are organized like this might actually mean that we don’t know things we otherwise would know?

Devang Mehta

I think it definitely affects where resources get invested. So, for example, if I’m writing a grant proposal to get some funding for my lab, if I can tangentially bring in a Nobel Prize-winning discovery into that, I will. But that also shapes the kind of science I do because then I’m trying to do science that’s more related to topics that some people in Sweden think is important, rather than what might actually be important in the world. So it definitely shapes what questions we ask and what kind of science we do.

I think it’s also shaped by just the parameters of the Nobel. They’re given to chemistry, physiology or medicine, and physics. But that excludes so much of science. It excludes all of evolutionary biology, which is so important to our conception of life on the planet. It excludes environmental science, which is so important when we think about climate change and pollution. It excludes plant science, which, of course, I’m biased towards as a scientist. It definitely excludes a whole slew of subjects that are important to improving life on the planet.

Noam Hassenfeld

Okay, so there are clearly a lot of problems with the Nobels. Can we do something? Can they be fixed?

Devang Mehta

If the Nobels have to go on, I think they need to radically change. First, I think you’d need to have a prize that was more international, that acknowledged work from a broader range of countries.

One solution that I presented in my article was that you could have Nobels going to discoveries, so that you have a Nobel Prize, for example, for the invention of the mRNA vaccine without actually saying who made that discovery. And then you could even have the prize money go into a fund to do research on that topic. But maybe that fund could be given to people working in developing countries because that’s where you need more resources.

And that could be a way in which you still have the publicity of science — you still have discoveries in science going out to the world every year through the Nobels. But you don’t have this kind of distortion of what science actually looks like.

Noam Hassenfeld

I wonder if there’s a danger here — if you are celebrating the science and not necessarily elevating the people behind it — of losing the sense of something being relatable or magical about winning? I’m sure all these scientists out there, when they were kids, wanted to grow up and be those people. Do you think there’s a danger of losing that element of science being someone’s dream?

Devang Mehta

I don’t think so. Suppose the prize next year went out to the [coronavirus] vaccine because it saved so many lives. And you had thousands of people involved in different countries. You could profile all of those people, instead of just having three people with their faces on newspapers across the world.

All of those people could be profiled by media in their own countries, and they could inspire children. They would say, “Oh, you’re a scientist who has the same background as me, who’s gone through the same challenges, yet is able to do this cutting-edge science!”

Sourse: vox.com

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