WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Most cutting-edge science today is collaborative and global — a reality the Nobel Prizes refuse to recognize.
Every October brings an air of anticipation to research universities and laboratories around the world, as scientists wait for the announcements of the coveted Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry — awards won by giants such as Albert Einstein and Marie Curie in years gone by.
It’s been that way for decades. Yet in recent years, there’s an equally unmistakable, collective sigh of frustration that often accompanies the actual announcements. That’s rarely because of any disagreement over the credentials of the winners. It mostly has to do with the fact that archaic rules often prevent the awarding of the prize to several researchers and institutions that deserve it.
Only the Peace Prize can be awarded to a group or an institution. All other Nobels, including in the sciences, medicine, economics and literature, can only be awarded to a maximum of three people in a particular year. The Nobel committee decides how to split the award money among the winners, if there is more than one.
It’s an approach that made sense in the early-20th century — the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901 — when scientists, economists and creative personalities worked in their own homes and labs as individuals, cut off from others. You could indeed accuse them of living in ivory towers.
Not anymore. Global teams, each with between dozens and thousands of scientists, are leading today’s most cutting-edge research — whether on subatomic particles or gene editing. The scale and complexity of modern research often demand that collaboration — and 21st-century communication and transport enable it. A researcher friend at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN, told me Saturday of a new research paper he had recently published that had more than 5,000 collaborators as authors — the list of their names, the joke goes, is often longer than the actual scientific content of the paper.
What’s not a joke is the Nobel Committee’s apparent refusal to acknowledge this reality. You don’t need to be interested in science to recall the noise some years ago around the discovery of the Higgs boson — the so-called “God particle” whose existence helped reconcile pivotal theories of nature that previously did not align. In 2013, the Nobel Prize in physics went to Peter Higgs and François Englert, the scientists who first thought of the particle and developed equations to explain its theoretical behavior. But the Nobel Committee ignored the thousands of scientists at CERN who for decades worked on developing the ideas of Higgs and Englert, researching ways to actually test those theories before successfully discovering a particle that until then had existed only on paper. The rules simply wouldn’t have allowed the Nobel Committee to award CERN.
The problem also arises when multiple teams are working on the same research in parallel, as is increasingly the case today. Look no further than 2020’s chemistry