The great Nobel Prize hypocrisy

Katie Langin’s report for Science on October 12 is an eye-opening account of one reason why the committees that pick every year’s Nobel Prize winners almost never pick women: because they aren’t nominated. Given the Nobel Foundation’s frustrating policy of secrecy, there aren’t many numbers available for us to work with, but Langin’s report adds one more column to the mix. Quoting from her piece:

The selection committees have generally been secretive about nominee statistics, citing a Nobel Foundation statute stipulating nominations be kept secret for 50 years. But committee members shared summaries of the data with Science. The total number of nominations for a physiology or medicine Nobel jumped from about 350 in 2015 to 874 this year. Over those years, the percentage of female nominees more than doubled, from 5% in 2015 to 13% this year. The chemistry committee saw a similar increase: At 7% to 8%, female nominees have doubled their share since 2018. A representative for the physics committee declined to share exact figures, but wrote in an email, “The number of nominated women has increased significantly in the last few years.”

In Langin’s telling (here and in other parts of her piece), the committees and some of their quoted members sound like they’re constrained by the number of women nominated. There is, more broadly, a noticeable vein of objectivitism running through the article, reflecting what sort of arguments the committees themselves will and won’t admit vis-à-vis their decision-making process. Here are some telling lines:

Members of the powerful selection committees that sort through the nominations say they aren’t satisfied with the progress. “The fraction of women among the nominated people is very low and I don’t think it represents the [fraction of] women that were doing science even 20 years ago,” says Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a biophysical chemist at Chalmers University of Technology who is one of two women on the eight-person chemistry committee.

“We want to have more women nominated,” agrees Eva Olsson, an experimental physicist at Chalmers who is a member of the physics selection committee.

This year, the physics committee had seven men and one woman, the chemistry committee was composed of six men and two women, and the physiology or medicine committee had the highest proportion of women, with 13 men and five women.

“Thanks to new recruitments over the recent ten years or so, the proportion of women [on the committee] is now similar to the proportion of female full professors at the [institute],” Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the physiology or medicine committee and a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute, in an email to Science. [Paraphrased]

The committees don’t consider gender when they discuss which discovery to award a Nobel Prize, Olsson says. “The focus is on science.”

The reason I’m getting into this is that waiting for the number of women scientists nominated to increase or double or whatever before including them among the laureates seems like a red herring. The ‘availability’ of women in the pool of nominations, which committee members can then pick from, has never been the problem. We all know there are too few women scientists; Göran Hansson, the head of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, even said yesterday that “it’s sad that there are so few women Nobel laureates and it reflects the unfair conditions in society, particularly in years past, but still existing.” The problem is that the Nobel Prize committees aren’t defying convention to pick and highlight women, that they’re waiting for the real world to fix the problem first before – from their point of view – simply reflecting that in the composition of their laureate lists. But when the laurel is as prominent and as storied as a Nobel Prize, we need affirmative action.

But Hansson put paid to this possibility when he said in the same interview that the prizes will never have gender quotas, obviously mindless of the stunning hypocrisy. The most legitimate protests against the prizes are rooted not in the narrower domain of awarding more men than women but in the wider one of the prizes having never reflected the conditions in which science is practiced in the real world. (The prizes are not awarded posthumously, and only to three laureates at a time, for example.) And Langin’s article doesn’t touch on this possibility at all. In fact, it pushes the next weightiest argument against the Nobel Prizes to the last paragraph:

“How people get on whatever list of possible nominees is a mystery to most people,” [Handelsman] says. “If women are unaware of whatever that political process is, then they can’t place themselves in the appropriate situations or [get] linked to the right people who can help them get nominated.”

That is, the committee that deliberates on the nominations is not happy that so few women are being nominated, while no one (outside the Nobel Foundation) knows the people staffing the nomination committees. Now, it’s unlikely to be the case that the many more men who are nominated for the Nobel Prizes start off knowing what these political processes are; it seems likelier that the bias against women begins not from women not knowing what these processes are but from biases on the part of the ‘low-level’ nominators, so to speak (I don’t care if they don’t have many women to pick from or what their idea of the Nobel Prizes is).

Handelsman may be right that women may not be ‘naturally’ clued in to these processes, but expecting them to assume this work, in addition to science work, seems like the wrong way to solve this problem. It’s also wronger that the nominators’ identities are such a secret, effectively blocking our view of them and their thought-processes behind the same veil that the likes of Anthony Fauci have used to separate science from society.

What’s the right way to solve this problem? Dismantle the Nobel Prizes.