Guest Post: Choosing the Nobel Prize winners is not an exact science

Some time back, commenter HI won a guest post by predicting the Nobel laureates in Medicine. He sent me the text a little while ago, and I’ve finally gotten around to posting it (things have been crazy around here):

Since Chad gave me the right to guest blog as a prize for correctly predicting the Nobel Prize winners, I thought it would be appropriate to write a post about the Nobel Prize. (It would have been more timely if I had written this sooner. This is why I’m not a real blogger.)

It was fun to be able to predict some of the Nobel Prize winners this year and last year. It is more interesting when I already know a little bit about the subject and the recipients when the Nobel Prize is announced. It is also nice when what you think is an important discovery is recognized by the Nobel committee. But I’ve also come to realize that there is a lot of arbitrariness in the selection of the Nobel Prize winners. Sometimes there are controversies about the choice of the winners and people who were left out. And the Nobel committee does not seem to be always consistent on whether to reward the early pioneers who made key discoveries before the field became hot or to reward scientists who made big advances at later stages. It also seems that in some cases the Nobel Prize is not given for very important discoveries because it is too difficult to choose three or fewer winners. (For example, the Nobel Prize has not (yet) been given for the discoveries of tumor suppressor genes.)

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for telomere was as easy to predict as it gets. It was predicted by many people and I don’t feel particularly insightful for predicting it. Telomere is an important topic in basic biology and also have medical significance in areas such as aging and cancer. There was also an element of surprise – the enzyme had an RNA component! It was also pretty easy to pick the winners. I picked the duo of Blackburn and Greider because I thought that their paper describing the telomerase activity was the most significant. But I don’t have any objection to the inclusion of Szostak. In 2006, three of them shared the Lasker Award, which is a good indicator for the future Nobel Prizes. It was easy to see the importance of their work and there was nothing that would be particularly controversial.

However, there is still some arbitrariness about the choice. It is very nice that Greider was recognized for the work she did as a graduate student. But this is one of the rare cases of scientists winning the Nobel Prize for the work they did as students or postdocs. Things would have been trickier if their paper had one more author. Szostak is a rare exceptionally creative scientist to whom the Nobel Prize winning work is only a small part of his resume. But many awards were given only to the duo of Blackburn and Greider and not Szostak. Tom Cech, who had won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of catalytic RNA, also made important contributions to the telomere field. Had he not already won the Nobel Prize, he could have been in the mix, too.

I first became aware of the race to solve the structure of the ribosome when I read a piece by Elizabeth Pennisi that appeared in Science in 1999. (See the summary at Science. You probably need subscription to read the full text.) It was written before the structures with high enough resolutions were solved, but all the key players were described and it is interesting to reread now. It was not difficult to see that this is the kind of work that would get the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The recent history shows that the committee likes to reward scientists who solved structures of important biological macromolecules. (Although many chemists in the blogsphere seem to have issues with “the Chemistry Prize going to biologists.”) Being the factory to produce proteins in the cells, one can argue that ribosomes are the most important biological macromolecules. And it is the most complex molecular structure that was solved by crystallography. (Read more in Alex Palazzo’s Transcription and Translation and in The RNA Underworld.)

The problem, though, is that this was a race of (at least) four teams lead by five senior scientists. If you read the article by Pennisi, you can get a sense that the five senior scientists, Ada Yonath, Harry Noller, Peter Moore, Tom Steitz, and Venki Ramakrishnan, as well as the members of their labs, had been making distinct contributions to the field. I don’t know the field enough to know which trio made the most significant contributions – and I was able to predict only one of the three eventual Nobel Prize winners. But this seems like yet another example that shows picking three Nobel Prize winners don’t do justice to all the scientists involved. (If you want to read some gossipy stuff, read comments #5 and #10 in Alex Palazzo’s blog three years ago.)

I’m happy for the scientists who won the Nobel Prize. And I would say that it is not too difficult to make some educated guesses about which fields and which scientists are likely to win. But there is inherent unfairness in choosing three or fewer winners. Selection of the Nobel Prize winners is not a scientific process and the Nobel Committee should not be seen as the final arbiter of science. The flip side is that we should not get too worked up about the Nobel Prize. It is kind of funny to see how some people get so upset about the choice of the Nobel Prize winners. (Chemists whined in 2006 and are whining again this year. Apparently many economists are not happy that the Economics Prize this year was awarded to someone who is not an economist. And of course there are a lot of complaints about the Peace Prize.) It’s just a bunch of Swedes (or Norwegians in the case of the Peace Prize) picking the winners. (Although I admit that I am also guilty of thinking too much about the Nobel Prize, enough to spend this many words on it.)

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: Choosing the Nobel Prize winners is not an exact science

  1. But there is inherent unfairness in choosing three or fewer winners.

    In today’s world, where large collaborations are normal in many fields, yes. At the time Alfred Nobel wrote his will, and for a few decades thereafter, collaborations of more than two or three people were unusual. Even in the larger groups, only a couple of scientists would have worked on any particular experiment. When you have such an environment, it’s easier to pick out three people (or fewer) who were responsible for some significant advance. Thus, for example, the committee could easily pick out Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga, who worked independently of one another, as the leading contributors to quantum electrodynamic theory.

    The big change, I think, was the Manhattan Project. That project proved that large groups of scientists who were not necessarily at the same institute could collaborate on projects. Now, in many fields it’s normal for author lists to run into double digits (I have been on a few such papers myself), and in the extreme case of experimental particle physics, it can take a full journal page or more to list all of the authors on a paper. Then, of course, the committee can only single out the authority figures, and even then they may have trouble limiting themselves to three.

  2. The trend toward bigger collaborations pre-dates the Manhattan project, though not by very much. I’ve heard Hannes Kammerlingh Onnes cited as the first to really pursue an industrial approach to experimental physics. By the 1920’s, the people doing nuclear experiments were starting to build really big collaborations. The Rutherford biography I read a while back mentions that he found this trend depressing, and was very happy when his small team managed to cause fission before some bigger collaborations. They were probably the last small shop to make a really big contribution in that area, though– after that, it was bigger and bigger groups.

  3. possibly worth noting that the science article linked above describes the the ribosome work as “structural biology.” And the chemist objection isn’t that the chemistry prize is going to biologists, but that it’s going to biologists doing biology. Eh, it probably depends on how you rate importance and difficulty and novelty. Personally, I’d have voted for catalytic antibodies or synthetic tRNA if you wanted a biological flavor. or something involving the enediyne antibiotics. And It would be nice to see Akira Suzuki recognized for his name reaction.

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