The Nobel Prize, its men and climate change

The sciences part of this year’s Nobel Prize announcements have concluded. These are the new laureates:

  • Physics – Syukuro Manabe 🇯🇵 🇺🇸, Klaus Hasselmann 🇩🇪 and Giorgio Parisi 🇮🇹
  • Chemistry – Benjamin List 🇩🇪 and David W.C. MacMillan 🇬🇧
  • Medicine/physiology – David Julius 🇺🇸 and Ardem Patapoutian 🇺🇸

I have yet to come across a more overt vestment of faith in the notions of prestige and genius whose increasingly unjust nature does little to diminish its value than the science Nobel Prizes. I seem to repeat this like clockwork every year but it bears repeating: few seem to care that the Nobel Prizes overlook the achievements of women (and people of other gender and racial identities) too often for them to be legitimate markers of achievement. Yet they continue to be so. This year, I have one more grouse… of sorts. It is at the least a sad irony at the centre of the 2021 physics and chemistry prizes. The citations for four of their recipients, out of five, connect their work to climate change directly or indirectly: Manabe and Hasselmann (“for the physical modelling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming”), and List and MacMillan (“for their development of a precise new tool for molecular construction [that] has had a great impact on pharmaceutical research, and has made chemistry greener”). By awarding its prizes for these citations to no one else, the Nobel Foundation has found one more way to exclude women and others from our narratives of climate change. This may seem like a roundabout concern, if not too tenuous to matter at all, but there is something to be said about justice here – especially what we deem to be steps too inconsequential to achieving it.

Beating climate change won’t just require us to lower our greenhouse-gas emissions. More fundamentally, it demands that we abandon modes of social and economic development that privilege wealth accumulation and gender stratification, among other things. However, the Nobel Prizes seem determined to gather white men at the centre of our conception of how science works and/or progresses (and thereon to how we can “develop” or “progress” as a nation), to the exclusion of people who, simply put, haven’t caught the prize-giving body’s attention by publishing in high-profile journals, by collaborating with notable researchers and/or at good universities, or simply by slipping past the surfeit of biases at research centres around the world – from who can win grants to whose work is appreciated, from who’s selected for lucrative jobs to who’s rejected on the basis of ‘fertility discrimination’. And when so many people, including most scientists, kneel at the altar of the Nobel Prizes, they help normalise the marginalisation of non-white (and non-trans) men from the public imagination of ‘important’ science and scientific achievements. This point of view obviously banks on the hope, however misguided, that the Nobel Foundation could become interested in wedding its considerable clout to an agenda to improve the fortunes of those who are held back by society’s prejudices – instead of simply continuing to treat scientific contributions to be wholly independent of the people who make them, and the social circumstances in which they do. This irrational division only entrenches science’s myth of objectivity, and supports fallacious claims that leaving out everyone but (non-trans) men doesn’t deprive science, and its application to human betterment, of novel, valuable and more just perspectives.* In fact, the Nobel Prizes must strive towards this agenda, to echo what I recently wrote about the Bhatnagar Prizes in India: that these prizes “will fall by the wayside if they continue to fail to provide society with a way to recognise its members’ achievements without conforming to a view of science that became dated decades ago.”

But of course, few care. 🙂

* Aside: The Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1938 comes to mind. The prize-giving committee awarded it to Richard Kuhn in spite of his ardent support for Nazism and his shameful conduct towards his Jewish colleagues two years earlier.

Featured image: Gösta Florman’s portrait of Alfred Nobel, late 19th century. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.