Why are the Nobel Prizes still relevant?

An engraved bust of Alfred Nobel. Credit: sol_invictus/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Note: A condensed version of this post has been published in The Wire.

Around this time last week, the world had nine new Nobel Prize winners in the sciences (physics, chemistry and medicine), all but one of whom were white and none were women. Before the announcements began, Göran Hansson, the Swede-in-chief of these prizes, had said the selection committee has been taking steps to make the group of laureates more racially and gender-wise inclusive, but it would seem they’re incremental measures, as one editorial in the journal Nature pointed out.

Hansson and co. seems to find the argument that the Nobel Prizes award achievements at a time where there weren’t many women in science tenable when in fact it distracts from the selection committee’s bizarre oversight of such worthy names as Lise Meitner, Vera Rubin, Chien-Shiung Wu, etc. But Hansson needs to understand that the only meaningful change is change that happens right away because, even for this significant flaw that should by all means have diminished the prizes to a contest of, for and by men, the Nobel Prizes have only marginally declined in reputation.

Why do they matter when they clearly shouldn’t?

For example, according to the most common comments received in response to articles by The Wire shared on Twitter and Facebook, and always from men, the prizes reward excellence, and excellence should brook no reservation, whether by caste or gender. As is likely obvious to many readers, this view of scholastic achievement resembles a blade of grass: long, sprouting from the ground (the product of strong roots but out of sight, out of mind), rising straight up and culminating in a sharp tip.

However, achievement is more like a jungle: the scientific enterprise – encompassing research institutions, laboratories, the scientific publishing industry, administration and research funding, social security, availability of social capital, PR, discoverability and visibility, etc. – incorporates many vectors of bias, discrimination and even harassment towards its more marginalised constituents. Your success is not your success alone; and if you’re an upper-caste, upper-class, English-speaking man, you should ask yourself, as many such men have been prompted to in various walks of life, who you might have displaced.

This isn’t a witch-hunt as much as an opportunity to acknowledge how privilege works and what we can do to make scientific work more equal, equitable and just in future. But the idea that research is a jungle and research excellence is a product of the complex interactions happening among its thickets hasn’t found meaningful purchase, and many people still labour with a comically straightforward impression that science is immune to social forces. Hansson might be one of them if his interview to Nature is anything to go by, where he says:

… we have to identify the most important discoveries and award the individuals who have made them. If we go away from that, then we’ve devalued the Nobel prize, and I think that would harm everyone in the end.

In other words, the Nobel Prizes are just going to look at the world from the top, and probably from a great distance too, so the jungle has been condensed to a cluster of pin-pricks.

Another reason why the Nobel Prizes haven’t been easy to sideline is that the sciences’ ‘blade of grass’ impression is strongly historically grounded, with help from notions like scientific knowledge spreads from the Occident to the Orient.

Who’s the first person that comes to mind when I say “Nobel Prize for physics”? I bet it’s Albert Einstein. He was so great that his stature as a physicist has over the decades transcended his human identity and stamped the Nobel Prize he won in 1921 with an indelible mark of credibility. Now, to win a Nobel Prize in physics is to stand alongside Einstein himself.

This union between a prize and its laureate isn’t unique to the Nobel Prize or to Einstein. As I’ve said before, prizes are elevated by their winners. When Margaret Atwood wins the Booker Prize, it’s better for the prize than it is for her; when Isaac Asimov won a Hugo Award in 1963, near the start of his career, it was good for him, but it was good for the prize when he won it for the sixth time in 1992 (the year he died). The Nobel Prizes also accrued a substantial amount of prestige this way at a time when it wasn’t much of a problem, apart from the occasional flareup over ignoring deserving female candidates.

That their laureates have almost always been from Europe and North America further cemented the prizes’ impression that they’re the ultimate signifier of ‘having made it’, paralleling the popular undercurrent among postcolonial peoples that science is a product of the West and that they’re simply its receivers.

That said, the prize-as-proxy issue has contributed considerably as well to preserving systemic bias at the national and international levels. Winning a prize (especially a legitimate one) accords the winner’s work with a modicum of credibility and the winner, of prestige. Depending on how the winners of a prize to be awarded suitably in the future are to be selected, such credibility and prestige could be potentiated to skew the prize in favour of people who have already won other prizes.

For example, a scientist-friend ranted to me about how, at a conference he had recently attended, another scientist on stage had introduced himself to his audience by mentioning the impact factors of the journals he’d had his papers published in. The impact factor deserves to die because, among other reasons, it attempts to condense multi-dimensional research efforts and the vagaries of scientific publishing into a single number that stands for some kind of prestige. But its users should be honest about its actual purpose: it was designed so evaluators could take one look at it and decide what to do about a candidate to whom it corresponded. This isn’t fair – but expeditiousness isn’t cheap.

And when evaluators at different rungs of the career advancement privilege the impact factor, scientists with more papers published earlier in their careers in journals with higher impact factors become exponentially likelier to be recognised for their efforts (probably even irrespective of their quality given the unique failings of high-IF journals, discussed here and here) over time than others.

Brian Skinner, a physicist at Ohio State University, recently presented a mathematical model of this ‘prestige bias’ and whose amplification depended in a unique way, according him, on a factor he called the ‘examination precision’. He found that the more ambiguously defined the barrier to advancement is, the more pronounced the prestige bias could get. Put another way, people who have the opportunity to maintain systemic discrimination simultaneously have an incentive to make the points of entry into their club as vague as possible. Sound familiar?

One might argue that the Nobel Prizes are awarded to people at the end of their careers – the average age of a physics laureate is in the late 50s; John Goodenough won the chemistry prize this year at 97 – so the prizes couldn’t possibly increase the likelihood of a future recognition. But the sword cuts both ways: the Nobel Prizes are likelier than not to be the products a prestige bias amplification themselves, and are therefore not the morally neutral symbols of excellence Hansson and his peers seem to think they are.

Fourth, the Nobel Prizes are an occasion to speak of science. This implies that those who would deride the prizes but at the same time hold them up are equally to blame, but I would agree only in part. This exhortation to try harder is voiced more often than not by those working in the West, with publications with better resources and typically higher purchasing power. On principle I can’t deride the decisions reporters and editors make in the process of building an audience for science journalism, with the hope that it will be profitable someday, all in a resource-constrained environment, even if some of those choices might seem irrational.

(The story of Brian Keating, an astrophysicist, could be illuminating at this juncture.)

More than anything else, what science journalism needs to succeed is a commonplace acknowledgement that science news is important – whether it’s for the better or the worse is secondary – and the Nobel Prizes do a fantastic job of getting the people’s attention towards scientific ideas and endeavours. If anything, journalists should seize the opportunity in October every year to also speak about how the prizes are flawed and present their readers with a fuller picture.

Finally, and of course, we have capitalism itself – implicated in the quantum of prize money accompanying each Nobel Prize (9 million Swedish kronor, Rs 6.56 crore or $0.9 million).

Then again, this figure pales in comparison to the amounts that academic institutions know they can rake in by instrumentalising the prestige in the form of donations from billionaires, grants and fellowships from the government, fees from students presented with the tantalising proximity to a Nobel laureate, and in the form of press coverage. L’affaire Epstein even demonstrated how it’s possible to launder a soiled reputation by investing in scientific research because institutions won’t ask too many questions about who’s funding them.

The Nobel Prizes are money magnets, and this is also why winning a Nobel Prize is like winning an Academy Award: you don’t get on stage without some lobbying. Each blade of grass has to mobilise its own PR machine, supported in all likelihood by the same institute that submitted their candidature to the laureates selection committee. The Nature editorial called this out thus:

As a small test case, Nature approached three of the world’s largest international scientific networks that include academies of science in developing countries. They are the International Science Council, the World Academy of Sciences and the InterAcademy Partnership. Each was asked if they had been approached by the Nobel awarding bodies to recommend nominees for science Nobels. All three said no.

I believe those arguments that serve to uphold the Nobel Prizes’ relevance must take recourse through at least one of these reasons, if not all of them. It’s also abundantly clear that the Nobel Prizes are important not because they present a fair or useful picture of scientific excellence but in spite of it.