The Problem With the Nobel Prizes

9 minute read
Rees is Astronomer Royal, former President of the Royal Society, Fellow (and former Master) of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. His latest book is If Science Is to Save Us

The Oscars attract huge publicity every year—and often generate controversy. Assessment of artistic merit is inherently subjective. And millions of us feel qualified to express approval or disapproval of the judges’ decision. It’s not like sporting contests, when the winner is usually clear.

Every October sees the awards of “scientific Oscars”—the Nobel Prizes. Outsiders might guess that in these cases objectivity should reign and the choice of winners should be as clear-cut as in athletics. But that’s not the reality. This year the Nobel Prizes went to a total of seven scientists— each rewarded for sustained efforts on a fundamental challenge. But in some years the awards trigger controversy and resentment. Unlike Oscar winners, however, the Nobel laureates generally aren’t well known personalities, and their achievements are often arcane, so debate on their worthiness takes place within the specialist community, and only rarely percolates to as wide a public as awards in the arts often do.

It’s quite easy to agree on what scientific advances in any particular field of science are important (though there may of course be dissent about the relative status of different fields). But what’s not so easy is to apportion credit for a discovery or invention. An artist’s creations may be ephemeral but they’re usually individual. If they hadn’t created a particular artwork or performance, nobody else would have done so. But in science, if “A” didn’t make a specific advance, then sooner or later (and usually sooner) “B” would have done so. Moreover, no scientist’s achievements are really solo, any more than a goal‐scorer’s triumph in soccer is independent of the other players on the field (and the manager off the field, too). Each advance builds on the work of others—and is very often a “team effort.” The Nobel Committee’s refusal to make an award to more than three people has led to manifest injustices, and given a misleading impression of how science actually advances, through the cooperation of a large group.

The 2017 Nobel for Physics recognised a genuine mega-discovery, LIGO’s detection of gravitational waves—”ripples” in space generated by colliding black holes a billion or more light years away They ‘shake’ space itself as they pass through the earth, but with an amplitude so minuscule that it’s like detecting the thickness of a human hair at the distance of Alpha Centauri. These detections are a virtuoso technical triumph, and a vindication of Einstein’s theory. The key papers reporting these results have up 1000 authors—but just three were rewarded with the prize. This decision attracted rather little flak, because there was a consensus among those who followed the subject that the chosen three (Barry Barish, Kip Thorne, and Ray Weiss) really stood out: they had offered pre-eminent sustained leadership, and had, in their careers, displayed exceptional talent and distinction.

But an earlier award triggered more unease: the 2011 Physics Prize went to astronomers who had found that the expansion of our universe was not slowing down, as would be expected because of the gravitational pull that galaxies exert on each other—but was instead accelerating. This implied that there was some mysterious force ‘pushing’ the galaxies apart that overwhelmed gravity on the cosmic scale—some “dark energy” latent in empty space. This discovery was made independently by two teams, each with around 25 members. The Nobel went to three people, two from one team and one from the other. But in this case several others in each team had track records fully as distinguished as those of the awardees.

Even if a discovery isn’t explicitly a team effort, several people may have separately researched the same topic and reached the finishing‐line almost simultaneously. For instance, a particle now called the Higgs boson was postulated in the 1960s as a ‘capstone’ of the so-called ‘standard model’ of particle physics: six people (Peter Higgs, of course, among them) were generally cited as having played key roles in predicting its existence (building on the work of still more). Of these six, the one with the strongest and most sustained lifetime achievement, the late Tom Kibble from Imperial College, London, did not receive a share of the Nobel when the particle was discovered fifty years later (nor did any of the thousand‐strong team at the CERN lab in Geneva who conducted the vast experiment that actually made the discovery).

Open Days At CERN Particle Physics Lab
A part of complex Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is seen underground during the Open Days at the CERN particle physics research facility on September 14, 2019 in Meyrin, Switzerland. The 27km-long Large Hadron Collider is currently shut down for maintenance, which has created an opportunity to offer access to the public. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is the world's largest laboratory for research into particle physics.Ronald Patrick-Getty Images

I’ve chosen these three examples from physics—the field I know best. They’re atypical in that most Nobel awards are closer to near-term applicability—but they still often involve groups. Three of the five prizes established in Nobel’s will are for science: for physics, for chemistry and for “physiology or medicine” (the other two are for Literature and for Peace). These three subjects are interpreted broadly, in a fashion that moves with the times. But the prizes nonetheless still exclude huge tracts of science. Famously, mathematics has never been included. Other vibrant new fields are left out too; the environmental sciences—oceans and ecology—aren’t covered. Nor are computing, robotics and artificial intelligence. So the Nobels, by failure adequately to acknowledge collaborative and parallel work, give a misleading impression of how science is done. And these exclusions distort the public perception of what sciences are important.

The public (and most journalists) perceive Nobel winners as ‘towering intellects’. Some are, but others, even among those who have made undeniably epochal and prize-worthy advances, have done this serendipitously: two such discoveries are neutron stars, and the cosmic microwave background—the “afterglow of creation.” Louis Pasteur famously averred that “fortune favours the prepared mind”; these scientists may claim for themselves greater luck—but not greater talent—than the average professor.

The flaws and gaps in the Nobel prizes have been partially remedied by philanthropists who have established new prizes—some promoted with a razzmatazz that matches the Nobels, and with even bigger jackpots. Among them, for instance, are the Breakthrough prizes set up by the U.S.-Russian billionaire Yuri Milner (which have been awarded to groups, such as the whole experimental team at CERN who discovered the Higgs particle); and the million‐dollar Berggruen prize for philosophy (given to three widely admired public intellectuals: Martha Nussbaum, Onora O’Neill and Ruth Bader Ginsberg). Overall, major awards now offer a better balance across the map of learning—both sciences and the humanities. Some awards offer substantial prestige but minimal prize‐money; for others, the reverse is the case.

It’s of course arguable that we should welcome the existence of mega‐awards that elevate a few intellectuals to a transient celebrity status. But there is a downside. Because of their special prominence and prestige Nobel winners’ opinions are sought by the press, and accorded disproportionate respect. Even the best scientists (and artists) generally have narrow expertise; their views on broader topics carry no special weight. Some of the greatest among then become an embarrassment if given a public platform. It’s possible to find a laureate to support almost any cause, however eccentric—and some exploit their status.

So more of us are coming to query the societal benefits of singling out, via somewhat arbitrary processes and criteria, awardees who need neither a morale boost, nor the money—and for work that was generally done many years earlier.

So we need more and better ways of encouraging discovery and innovation by the world’s scientific community. On such example is challenge prizes, which don’t reward past success, but incentivise future efforts to tackle an important problem. The most prominent present‐day exemplars of these are the X‐Prizes, inspired by the Greek/American entrepreneur Peter Diamandis and run by his California‐based foundation. Challenges are selected, and a jackpot of around 10 million dollars is offered to those who first meet each of them. A special plus of this system is that the aggregate funding expended by all the challengers for each prize far exceeds the prize money; each competition therefore offers a cost‐effective incentive toward a goal that is socially worthwhile or of genuine public interest.

Challenge prizes have a long history dating back to the famous Longitude Prize established by the U.K. government in 1714. Two century later, another prize stimulated Lindberg’s solo transatlantic flight. More recently there have been prizes for sub‐orbital space flight, driverless cars, robots that operate in hazardous environments, and so forth. (And some haven’t been won. Over a century ago a French foundation offered 100,000 francs for the first detection of extra‐terrestrial life: moreover finding it on Mars wouldn’t count as it was deemed too easy!) As compared to usual forms of funding, these prizes encourage mavericks. They can also attract public interest: those in robotics, for instance, can be a spectator sport where progress towards a target can be followed year by year.

Today’s world is dependent on the benign application of our scientific knowledge; meeting the 21st-century challenges of providing global energy, health, and a sustainable environment require future advances, too. It’s crucial to deploy resources optimally and to offer novel incentives—in money, prestige and satisfaction—to research groups and to encourage the aspiration of the younger generation to develop and apply their talents to enhance human benefit and understanding.

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