*Since writing this piece my understanding has changed and I now believe it contains fundamental flaws. Anyone who would like further clarification is welcome to e-mail me at hklaxnessat- yahoo.com*
Why there should be more science Nobel prizes and laureates – And why proportionate credit should be awarded to institutions
Bruce G. Charlton
Medical hypotheses. 2007; 68: 471-473
The four science Nobel prizes (physics, chemistry, medicine/physiology and economics) have performed extremely well as a method of recognizing the highest level of achievement. The prizes exist primarily to honour individuals but also have a very important function in science generally. In particular, the institutions and nations which have educated, nurtured or supported many Nobel laureates can be identified as elite in world science. However, the limited range of subjects and a maximum of 12 laureates per year mean that many major scientific achievements remain un-recognized; and relatively few universities can gather sufficient Nobel-credits to enable a precise estimate of their different levels of quality. I advocate that the Nobel committee should expand the number of Nobel laureates and Prize categories as a service to world science. (1) There is a large surplus of high quality prize candidates deserving of recognition. (2) There has been a vast expansion of research with a proliferation of major sub-disciplines in the existing categories. (3) Especially, the massive growth of the bio-medical sciences has created a shortage of Nobel recognition in this area. (4) Whole new fields of major science have emerged. I therefore suggest that the maximum of three laureates per year should always be awarded in the categories of physics, chemistry and economics, even when these prizes are for diverse and un-related achievements; that the number of laureates in the ‘biology’ category of physiology or medicine should be increased to six or preferably nine per year; and that two new Prize categories should be introduced to recognize achievements in mathematics and computing science. Together, these measures could increase the science laureates from a maximum of 12 to a minimum of 24, and increase the range of scientific coverage. In future, the Nobel committee should also officially allocate proportionate credit to institutions for each laureate, and a historical task force could also award institutional credit for past prizes.
The Nobel prizes have since 1901 existed primarily to honour individuals, but the prizes also have a very important function in science generally, in particular providing a retrospective research quality evaluation for institutions and nations.
The four science Nobel prizes (physics, chemistry, medicine/physiology, and – since 1969 – economics) have performed extremely well as a method of recognizing the highest level of achievement. (The literature and peace prizes, lacking objective and internationally-valid criteria for evaluation, have clearly failed to achieve the validity of the science prizes.) Although originally awarded to individuals, the science prizes are now awarded a maximum of once a year to a maximum of three laureates, which makes a maximum total of only 12 laureates annually. However this maximum number of laureates is not often reached due to the usual practice of awarding each year’s prize for achievements related to a single ‘theme’ of research – for which only one or two people may be responsible.
The science prizes serve not only to honour individuals retrospectively, but have also been used to evaluate the quality of universities and other research institutions by crediting the places that have been associated with the most ‘revolutionary’ science breakthroughs. For example, the Shanghai Jiao Tong academic rankings (http://ed.sjtu.edu.cn/rank/2006) uses ‘alumni’ data of the university where Nobel Laureates studied, and also the institution where laureates were working at the time of award. This generates a mostly-US world elite of universities containing the likes of Harvard, Chicago, Princeton, Colombia, MIT, Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley and Cambridge (UK).
But the maximum of only 12 science laureates per year means that many major scientific achievements remain un-recognized. Outside of the research super-elite, few universities can gather sufficient Nobel-credits to enable a precise estimate of their different level of quality. Such small numbers create considerable statistical noise, over-valuing a ‘lucky’ institution and undervaluing other places where Nobel-quality work was accomplished but un-rewarded.
I suggest that the massive expansion and specialization of world science since the foundation of the Nobel Prizes implies that the number of Nobel laureates should be at-least doubled. It would also be a very useful service to science if the prize committee would – in future and retrospectively – proportionately allocate an official share of institutional credit for each person’s prize.
Reasons why more Nobel laureates are justified
1. While it is understandable that the Nobel Committee and existing laureates would not want to ‘inflate’ the value of the award, given the number of unrewarded major scientists there seems to be no shortage of very high quality candidates for Nobels. So there should be no problem that increasing numbers would reduce the quality of laureates.
2. The past century since the first Nobel Prize in 1901 has seen a vast, many-fold expansion of scientific research. Furthermore, there has been a continual process of specialization of research, as well as the generation of new hybrid categories (such as bio-chemistry). So, the meaning of a Nobel has changed. It is now appropriate that within a general category, several specialist prizes be awarded each year.
3. The relative importance of sciences have changed, and for the several decades the bio-medical sciences have dominated in terms of size and achievements. This has created a shortage of Nobel recognition in the area of physiology and medicine. For example, many major therapeutic advances in drug discovery and innovative procedures have not been recognized by Nobel prizes.
4. New fields of science have emerged and grown to maturity. Economics was recognized by a new Nobel Prize founded in 1968, but mathematics and computing science also seem worthy of new prizes. (The mathematical Fields Medal of the Royal Society is not a Nobel equivalent, since it only goes to candidates aged less than 40.)
5. An increase in the numbers of Nobel prizes would have great advantages for recognizing the scientific research institutions which have educated, nurtured and supported them. When there are so few laureates each individual award carries a disproportionate weight in terms of institutional associations. Only a handful of world universities have gathered enough laureates over sufficient years to eliminate chance effects. More laureates would mean that the contribution of institutions would be more precisely measurable, a wider range of scientific achievement would be rewarded, and also more up to date measures would become useable.
6. Related to this, it would be a great service to science if prizes were awarded not just to an individual, but if the official credit for each laureate was also proportionately allocated between any institutions that were considered significantly to have supported the achievement – this process could also be done retrospectively (e.g. by an historical task force constituted for the purpose).
In conclusion, I would advocate a progressive expansion of the number of science Nobel prizes. The exact mechanism by which this would be achieved is not critical, but here are some suggestions:
1. The maximum of three laureates per year in the physics, chemistry and economics categories should be awarded as a matter of routine; even when this means that prizes are being given for diverse and un-related achievements.
2. The number of laureates in the ‘biology’ category of physiology or medicine should be increased to six or preferably nine.
3. Consideration should be given to two new prizes to recognize achievements in mathematics and computing science.
A combination of these measures would ensure that the number of laureates per year would increase from the current maximum of 12 to a minimum of 21–24. The situation could be monitored to ensure that this change did not lead to any sign of incipient decline in quality of laureates, and consideration could be given to further expansion or adjustment of disciplinary categories in future.
While it is understandable and laudable that the Nobel committee should be extremely cautious about devaluing the status of the award, in fact the real problem is exactly the opposite. By maintaining so few laureates when world science has expanded so much, there has been a deflationary extra-valuation of each award and an arbitrary element to the distribution of credit. As a service to world science, the Nobel Committee should seriously consider expanding the number of laureates to keep-up with the volume and quality of scientific activity.