By: David Seddon
July 4th, 2023
The Nobel Prize is, undoubtedly, a great thing. It serves as a record for the achievements of some of humanity’s best, going back over a hundred years now. The prestige it offers the winners encourages other scientists to continue to try their best. However, it is also very far from being perfect, or even a force only for good in this world, and that’s worthy of being discussed.
At the same time, the Nobel Prize has a lot of downsides—specifically in how it’s awarded, and who it’s awarded to—and those are also worth discussing. But before discussing those, it’s important to have a brief understanding of the history of the Nobel Prize.
The awarding of the Nobel Prize began in 1901 following the death of Alfred Nobel, according to what was in his will. Nobel was a scientist and entrepreneur, his most notable contribution being the invention of dynamite. He wanted to continue his legacy after his passing by putting his wealth towards the establishment of a prize that would continue to reward humanity’s best and brightest.
This specific origin has directly led to many of the problems which bother people about the Nobel Prize to this day. Most notably, Nobel, the man, wanted to highlight and reward the individuals, not groups, responsible for progress. This meant that only a maximum of three people could be awarded any single Nobel Prize. However, modern science is a process where dozens, or even hundreds, of individuals can collaborate on just one paper.
In an article on PubMed titled “Is the Nobel Prize good for Science?” authors Arturo Casadevall and Ferric C. Fang make this exact point about the nature of limiting the recipients to only three people. A section of this short article reads, “In this regard, the Nobel Prize epitomizes the winner-takes-all economics of credit allocation and distorts the history of science by personalizing discoveries that are truly made by groups of individuals.” They end up recommending that the Nobel Committees remove this restriction in order to award the Nobel Prize to as many people as contributed to the discovery.
Similarly, in another PubMed article author Bruce G Charlton argues a similar, though less extreme point: that the number of awarded participants should be increased, as well as the number of categories that receive awards. This position highlights another common issue brought up about the Nobel Prize; the categories are too limited.
Right now there are six Nobel categories: Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Economics, Literature, and Peace. The prize for economics wasn’t part of Nobel’s original will, but was later added by the Swiss Bank in his memory.
It’s not that these aren’t important categories of human advancement, but they hardly seem to encompass all noteworthy human achievement. One example to bring up in this regard is the lack of acknowledgement of advancements in the field of biology. Even if a Nobel Committee wanted to reward an achievement in a different field of study, they would first have to find a justification to fit that accomplishment into the field they were supposed to be rewarding, and that could be seen as taking the award away from someone who deserved it more.
The Nobel Committee responds to this exact point in their FAQ. They said that they’re following the Will of Alfred Nobel, and that the Economics prize is valid because it was made in memorial of Alfred Nobel. From this it seems likely that the people in charge of the Nobel Prize will do everything they can to keep the structure of the prize in line with Nobel’s initial wishes, no matter how much time passes.
It’s not just the structure of how the prizes are given out that’s the problem. The people on the Nobel Committees can introduce unique issues. Namely, that no matter what their intentions are, they are not objective and that can be reflected in who is, and who isn’t, given a Nobel Prize.
The paper “Gender Bias in the Nobel Prize” states in its abstract that their “model reveals, with exceedingly large confidence, that indeed women are strongly under-represented among Nobel laureates across all disciplines examined.” To quote another article, “Why The 2019 Nobel Prizes Struggled with Diversity”, the author Gretchen Frazee says, “If you tally all of the Nobel Prizes in the sciences in history, awards have been given to only 21 women, or 3 percent of the 700 laureates.”
This kind of bias, given the history of science and the men who have influenced its advancement, isn’t surprising, but it still is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. This is, at least in part, true if for no other reason than to counterbalance the number of sexists who have used their position as Nobel Prize winners to give themselves platforms.
For example, in 2017, Tim Hunt was given the chance to speak during an event hosted by the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations, and used this opportunity to make sexist remarks. He was given this platform, in part, because he won a Nobel Prize in medicine in 2001. Of course, the Nobel Committee shouldn’t be held responsible for the choices of the prize recipients, but the fact that it has empowered sexists to spread toxic ideas publicly is still worth mentioning.
Overall, the Nobel Prize is, in many ways, a great and prestigious award, and one that deserves to exist. But at the very least, it should not be understood as something that is wholly good or beyond criticism.
David Seddon is a senior undergraduate student with a major in professional and public writing and a minor in Chinese. A big fan of fantasy and sci-fi, David can often be found playing games, reading books or working on his own self-published books in his free time.