In October the most anticipated week of science takes place: the announcements of the Nobel prizes. But is it possible that this centuries-old tradition is a bottleneck for the visibility of the work of underrepresented groups and of how science is progressing today?
Perhaps the most dramatic numbers due to their inequality are these: of a total of 962 winners (as of 2020) only 58 are women, in fact 57, since Marie Curie received 2 awards, the remaining are 24 organizations and 866 men. If we consider the three “hard” scientific categories, the numbers are even more impressive: in physiology or medicine there are only 12 women out of 224, in chemistry 7 out of 186 and in physics only 4 out of 216. If this bias is not enough, no laureates / a in these categories has been black.
These objective data make us ask the question of whether the Nobel Prizes are really being delivered to the best research, to those with the greatest contribution to humanity, or if instead there is a severe bias in those who make the nominations and choose the winners.
Another point to consider is that advances in science depend less and less on individual efforts. The idea of the lonely genius scientist is more of a caricature than a reflection of today’s world. For example, the 2013 and 2017 physics awards for the discovery of the Higgs boson and the detection of gravitational waves, were thousands of scientists from multiple disciplines who participated to make this discovery a reality. Awarding one, two, or three scientists totally distorts the merit of teamwork and collaboration, which are the foundation of current progress.
In this last sense, the Nobel laureates run the risk of being a stumbling block in the recognition of a new way of doing science and of becoming a kind of lottery, where the subjectivity, partiality and cultural biases of those who choose take precedence over scientific merits.
Finally, the last point has to do with what is really being awarded. When these awards began in 1901, the categories of chemical physics, physiology and medicine, literature, and economics made sense (I will leave the peace prize out of the discussion). The disciplines were much more delimited and the contributions of one had little to do with another.
But after 120 years, things have changed a lot, today we have disciplines that in the words of Alfred Nobel produce “remarkable contributions to humanity in the previous year or in the course of their activities” and that are unlikely to be awarded this prize. For example, advances in computing, quantum computing, robotics, and artificial intelligence, who do we hand over advances in materials science to? Is that physics or chemistry? Much has been said that several of the latest chemistry awards are actually breakthroughs in biochemistry and not pure chemistry.
I think it’s time to rethink science as labeled boxes with non-interacting content, and embrace an interconnected, multidisciplinary world where breakthroughs are made through collaboration and teamwork rather than individual genius.
Juan Carlos Beamín is an astronomer and coordinator of the Center for Communication of Sciences of the Autonomous University and collaborator of the Chilean Astronomy Foundation.
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