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Oct152016

Science progresses. But the Nobel prizes?

On the eve of the 2016 Nobel prize announcements, in a New York Times op-ed, science writer Gabriel Popkin argued that "the world's most important scientific honor" should be updated to include fields such as ecology, meteorology, oceanography and science education or outreach. 

Popkin highlighted one Nobel-ineligible breakthrough: Robert Paine's discovery that starfish can be a "keystone species" whose presence or absence changes the surrounding marine ecosystem. Keystone species has become "one of ecology's guiding principles," for example leading to the re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park.

Dynamite tycoon Alfred B. Nobel, in his 1895 will, wrote that three prizes must reward acheivements in "physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine;" two more were for literature and peace. Popkin argued that the Nobel Foundation's limiting the science prizes to these three areas is a "shackles." Breakthroughs in ecology are excluded, for example. (Popkin's free-lance writing includes ecology and forests.)

"Science's reach has relentlessly expanded to include ever more facts of our world" But "much of today's most exciting and important science resides in the borders of traditional disciplines or in ones that don't have a dedicated prize."

It is unarguable that the most prestigous award in basic science has changed little. Since the first Nobels were meted out in 1901, only one prize has been added: the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences, begun in 1968 because of new, separate funding. This quasi-Nobel is awarded with the same magnificent honors as the "real" Nobels, as I wrote when my uncle Lloyd Shapley shared this prize in 2012. (See my account at Postcard from Stockholm.)

Popkin contended there is damage from not broadening the Nobels. Superstars in Nobel-ineligible fields like climate, forests and ocean research are stuck in a "universe" with less access to policymakers and public exposure. Their lower status hurts "science’s overall standing," of which a sign is "stagnating or declining funding and increasing political attacks on science ... in many countries." I.e.  if superstars in now-urgent areas such as climate and ecosystems had "Nobel" name tags, they would be heeded more and funding would rise for their fields.

"The Nobel organization should take a bold leap into the present and shine its bright light more widely,"  he concluded.

There's nothing new about proposals to broaden the science Nobels. In a letter published in New Scientist in 2009, ten scientists, including a Nobelist, urged the Foundation to offer new prizes for global environment and for global health. They urged a new prize in behavioral science, and to expand "physiology or medicine" across the life sciences so ecology and other streams of work could win.

The Nobel Foundation continues to respond it has kept up with progress in modern science. aAso, adding Nobels would contravene Nobel's will.  The  Comments on Popkin's op-ed posted by the Times Oct 3 show that many agree the Nobels need not change and won't anyhow.

Paul Stamler wrote that Popkin "leaves out the most egregious of the Nobel omissions -- astronomy," which could have recognized Hubble (expanding universe) and Lemaître (Big Bang theory).

Saving lives through science is not covered, apart from basic research. Commenters noted key people thus left out: Droll (smoking causes cancer); Muller (inventing DDT). Borlaug (wheat breeding) and Gore and the IPCC (understanding climate change) got the prize for peace, not science. 

Commenters listed other prizes that reward areas of achievement beyond the Nobels: Turing Prize, Fields Medal. Kavli Prize, Volvo Prize, Crafoord Prize and Breakthrough Prize.

But should such prizes exist?  CNN medical guru and author Sanjay Gupta commented that funds created by billionaires pose an "ethical dilemma:" non-rewarded work loses out.

The Nobel "has perverted academia's sense of what is important" whote Gupta. The Gates Foundation and Chan-Zuckerberg initiative "take over large sections of the human agenda by fiat." But "wealth should not confer the privilege of setting the agenda for the human race or for any other species."

A fresh objection came from "Michael." He wrote that now, at the royal ceremony, "boring economists" rise to receive their medals last, after the literature winner, whose big moment Alfred Nobel wanted to climax the whole thing. Handing out yet more prizes "would make the awards ceremony untenably long.”

The 2016 Nobel announcements rolled out in the days after Popkin's Oct 3 piece.

The economics prize hung in there.

On Oct 10 Oliver Hart (Harvard) and Bengt Holmström (MIT) were announced as winners of the 2016 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Their work in contract theory has become fundamental in law and other aspects of society. 

Whatever the contract may be between society and science, it got a good working-over thanks to Popkin's timely piece.


 

 

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