Is Nobel Science Noble?

My sixth grade teacher asked us to write a report on a career we were interested in.  I did mine on nuclear physics, and from then on I thought I knew where I was headed in life!  In college, however, two literature courses and an introduction to philosophy changed my mind, and I went on to become a cognitive psychologist.  One of the things I gave up with that change in direction was the lure of a Nobel Prize.  However, by then I had learned the history and lore of the Nobel.  Cantor’s Dilemma set me to thinking about the role this famous award plays in the development and practice of the sciences involved.

The very fact that prizes are given only in a small number of fields leads to some distortions.  Much of science is completely excluded – astronomy, geology and mathematics are notable.  At the same time, the narrow specialty of physiology within the biological sciences is included along with medicine, which is arguably an applied science.  Has this exclusivity itself distorted both the sciences in the circle and those excluded?  In Cantor’s Dilemma, as well as NO, the last of his four “science-in-fiction” novels, Carl Djerassi reflects on these questions, and in NO, he even asks is Nobel science “noble.”

As the basis for the plot of a novel, having a race to win the Nobel Prize is clearly attractive.  And it does bring out both the best and worst aspects of competition in science.  Because the announcement of the Prizes is a big media event, and Nobel Laureates become overnight celebrities, it is widely regarded as the ultimate accolade a scientist can achieve.  There are other features of the Nobel Prize that makes it a great event for fiction.  Scientists really aren’t supposed to compete for it.  And the selection process is not especially transparent.  Historically, it has even been subject to political pressure.  Thus, there are plenty of opportunities for competitors to sabotage each other’s work or somehow influence the selection process.  Worst of all, deserving recipients die before the Swedish Academy gets around to honoring them. I hate to play the purist here, but focusing on the competitive side of science can turn a fascinating human activity into something simplistic and trivial.

It is worth comparing the Nobel Prize to the MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “genius award,” which actually does what Nobel originally intended — make it possible for promising scientists, who have made significant discoveries, to continue their work.  The MacArthur awards, by contrast, are usually bestowed on creative scientists (as well as authors, artists, composers and original thinkers of all kinds) who have no idea they’re even being considered.  And the money typically represents essential financial support for them to continue what they’re doing, which is sometimes out of the mainstream and difficult to justify to funding agencies like NSF, NIH or private foundations that use peer reviews to decide on funding.  Contrast that with the fact that most Nobel Laureates already manage huge grant projects with well-equipped labs, many technicians and a steady stream of post-docs.

The MacArthur Foundation also doesn’t impose the silly limitations Nobel did.  A mathematician, geologist or anthropologist is as likely to receive a fellowship as a physicist, chemist or molecular biologist.  I honestly believe that Alfred Nobel would find the conservative, lifetime achievement awards of most contemporary Nobel Prizes to be a perversion of his original conception.

Now, consider a novel about a scientist whose papers are rejected by the major journals in her field and her proposals, passed over by NSF and NIH.  Yet she perseveres on a shoestring budget and borrowed equipment, repeatedly demonstrating the validity of her theory and showing that the current theory cannot explain her results.  Just as she is about to lose her job and end her career as a scientist, could she under any conceivable circumstances get a call from Stockholm and the prize money to pay her salary for five years and fund her research?  The answer is no.  To be plausible the call would have to come from the MacArthur Foundation.  I can’t help but think that the nobility of Nobel science is tarnished by the details of its history!

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