Do the Nobel prizes do more harm than good?

The awards 'draw their share of flak' and can lead to 'scientific error', argue critics

Illustration of a Nobel Prize medal alongside detail of DNA codes and science experiments
One challenge for the Nobel committees is the increasingly collaborative nature of most scientific research
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images / Shutterstock)

The jailed Iranian women's rights activist Narges Mohammadi has won the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize.

The Nobel committee said Mohammadi received the prize for her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her efforts for promoting human rights and freedom for all.

Her win comes after the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman, who developed the technology that led to the mRNA Covid vaccines.

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These are "some of humanity’s highest-profile international prizes" and they "celebrate some of the greatest human achievements in science", said Vox. "But the Nobels are also far from perfect."

What did the papers say?

In addition to the "huge publicity", the prizes "also draw their share of flak, sometimes triggering controversy and resentment over who gets chosen and who is left out", said CNN.

Martin Rees, the British physicist and former president of the Royal Society, told the broadcaster that "one challenge for the Nobel committees is the increasingly collaborative nature of most scientific research. The image of the lone genius having a eureka moment is long gone, if it ever truly existed."

"Science in real life is built on teamwork," agreed Devang Mehta, a synthetic biologist at the University of Alberta, on the Unexplainable podcast. In 2017, the prize in physics went to researchers of gravitational waves, he recalled, but "the actual endeavor to discover the gravitational waves required a lot of infrastructure – thousands of people". But "the prize went to three people".

The cosmologist Brian Keating believes "the mere existence of the Nobel Prize can distort the science" that experts "pursue", said Vox. Keating argued that his team made an "embarrassing error" because they "rushed to publish a little too quickly", partly because of the "potential of being connected to a Nobel".

In an article for Time last year, Rees argued that "because of their special prominence and prestige", Nobel winners’ opinions are "sought by the press, and accorded disproportionate respect", so "some of the greatest among [them] become an embarrassment if given a public platform".

The Nobel Peace Prize can often "stir controversy", said Al Jazeera, because the selection process has "at times been marred by accusations of sexism, racism and the award committee being Eurocentric". So far, 109 individuals have won the peace award but only 18 were women, and there was criticism when the former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger received it, despite being accused of "several war crimes", including bombings in Cambodia.

Does all this controversy mean the entire process is more hassle than it's worth? Nobel Prize announcements have become "our own little nerd Super Bowl", wrote C. Brandon Ogbunu for Scientific American, an "Academy Awards for the pocket-protector crowd". But criticisms of the Nobel prizes "continue to miss the mark", he argued, and are often "obscured by scapegoating, moral superiority, and public posturing".

What next?

So what can be done? "If the Nobels have to go on," said Mehta, "they need to radically change." He suggested a prize that is "more international" and "that acknowledged work from a broader range of countries". He also suggested Nobels "going to discoveries", so that you have a Nobel Prize for the "invention of the mRNA vaccine without actually saying who made that discovery".

We need "more and better ways of encouraging discovery and innovation by the world's scientific community", said Rees. "One such example is challenge prizes," he added, "which don't reward past success, but incentivise future efforts to tackle an important problem."

"In the meantime", wrote Ogbunu, "I can draw inspiration from the lives of Nobel laureates", because they contain "thrilling tales of discovery, and lessons about creativity and resilience. The winners will be okay," he said.

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