SOFIA: So, Nell, the Nobel Prizes for science are being awarded this week. We’ve got physiology or medicine today, physics on Tuesday and chemistry on Wednesday.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right – and even though we’re taping this before the first prize is announced, we already have a lot to talk about.
SOFIA: Yeah – these awards are a rare example of lots of people – nonacademics, the media – really celebrating scientists. I mean, Nell, you’ve covered them for years, right? It’s kind of a big deal.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Years, years – and every year, science reporters around the world get up at this ungodly hour to find out who won and then explain it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So one year I had, like, 15 minutes to figure out how to explain the, quote, “mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics.” I kid you not.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You really have to have three families of quarks in nature – have a part called the kaon.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So I did my best. But, you know, a lot of science journalists I know feel a certain amount of discomfort when they’re covering the Nobels. And it’s not because we have to wake up early in the morning and scramble around trying to figure out how to describe this esoteric stuff we might not have even heard of. I mean, that is just sort of, like, everyday science reporting.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So, you know, what we have problems with are the things that are kind of inherently problematic about the Nobels – I mean, you know, who historically wins the awards and how the whole thing portrays the process of science and collaboration to the public.
SOFIA: So today on the show, we talk about the problems with the Nobel Prizes in science and ask the question, do they do more damage than good? I’m Maddie Sofia, and this is SHORT WAVE from NPR.
SOFIA: OK, Nell, so we are sticking to the traditional science Nobels today – physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine. Another reminder here for our audience – we are recording this before the 2020 prizes are announced.
OK, let’s start by talking about how all this works, Nell. It’s run by the Nobel Committee, and each year they invite specific scientists to nominate people – people who are, quote, “competent and qualified to nominate.”
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right – so not just anyone can nominate. You know, you have to be invited. I couldn’t nominate someone unless, you know…
GREENFIELDBOYCE: …Someone picked me, and that hasn’t happened. And after the nominations come through, you know, different committees select up to three winners for each discovery. And the whole process is pretty secretive. They don’t release who is nominated for, like, 50 years. I talked with one researcher…
SOFIA: Yeah, it’s super secretive. And, you know, only those who are nominated can win. And the makeup of those winners, the types of people who most often win, is arguably the biggest problem with the awards.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So it probably won’t shock the SHORT WAVE audience that the majority of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences are men, but how large that majority is might surprise you.
SOFIA: Yeah, I mean, in physics, of the total 213 individuals who have won, three are women. That’s less than 2%. And it’s about the same for chemistry. It’s a little better for physiology or medicine – and I mean a little bit. About 5 1/2 percent of the winners are women.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So, you know, you might see that and think – well, you know, it usually takes a while before someone’s work is recognized for being, you know, of significant importance, like, a couple decades. So maybe what we’re seeing is just a reflection of the lack of women in academic science decades ago. But the researcher I mentioned – she did a study looking at that. She looked at the gender ratio in these fields going back years, and she says that is not the explanation.
JAUFFRED: Even if you take into account this delay, we have a – there are much fewer women that actually get the Nobel Prize than what this gender ratio suggests.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And it really matters, you know? I covered this thing at Rockefeller University in New York City – it’s this thing that they called the dude wall. I mean, that’s not the official name, but…
GREENFIELDBOYCE: …It’s this wall just outside their main auditorium, and it was covered with, like, 30 headshots of Nobel winners and winners of the Lasker prize, which is often called the American Nobel. And 100% percent of them were men. And, you know, one professor who worked there told me just walking past this every day, it sent this message that, like, the best science was done by men.
SOFIA: Exactly – I mean, that’s the message, right? And we haven’t even talked about racial diversity. I reached out to the Nobel’s organization to try and get a hold of the racial demographics of the winners. And Nell, they told me – and this is real – they don’t keep those types of statistics.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I talked with this guy, Winston Morgan. He’s a researcher at the University of East London. And he said a couple of years ago when a couple of women won science Nobels – and there was a lot of coverage of that and how great it was for science and women in society – he wondered if it had ever gone to a Black scientist. And he couldn’t find any for physics, physiology or medicine or chemistry.
WINSTON MORGAN: The Nobel Prize is the icing on the cake, but it’s really a reflection on society and the inequalities in society. And that’s – to me, that’s the more important thing.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So, Maddie, you know, this could be the year that changes. You know, a science Nobel could finally be awarded to a Black scientist. And since, as you noted, we’re recording this before the Nobel in physiology and medicine, you know, maybe it was already awarded, and we don’t know about it. That would be cool.
SOFIA: Yeah, I mean, that would be cool – and maybe it has. And I don’t want to make it sound like it wouldn’t be a big deal or it wouldn’t be important because it absolutely would be. But it’s just – it’s not enough, not after more than 100 years of not recognizing Black scientists.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, you know, yeah, (laughter) you’d like there to be more than one ideally, you know, going forward.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Obviously, the Nobel Committee is aware of all this kind of stuff. And last year, the organization said it was introducing measures to increase the diversity, like asking more women to suggest candidates and asking nominators to consider the diversity of gender and geography and, you know, the kind of science and ethnicity. So, you know, they say they’re taking steps to try to improve this.
SOFIA: Right – and whether or not, you know, that small change is going to actually, you know, considerably move things along remains to be seen. I mean, even if we have a record-breaking year for women this year, it’s still a problem. I mean, women would have to win, like, every single science prize for something like 70 years before they caught up to men, you know, even more so when it comes to racial diversity. So that’s one aspect that’s kind of changing, although very slowly. Let’s talk about the aspects of the Nobel Prizes that are set in stone. I think a really important critique is that these awards pick a couple of people to represent big scientific discoveries, discoveries that often take giant teams of people.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So the rules of the Nobel say that the prize can only be shared by, at most, three people. And this is simply not how a lot of modern science is done. For example, in 2017, the Nobel in physics went to three scientists for the first detection of gravitational waves. And you know, not too long ago, I was talking with Rai Weiss, one of the winners, and he said there were lots of other deserving people.
RAI WEISS: Why should I have a Nobel Prize when there were at least 20 other people who have had equivalent input into this thing, too?
SOFIA: Right – I mean, this is why some people think scientific teams should be awarded or the discovery itself instead of this, like, three people rule.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, and as a science reporter, I can tell you that every year, reporters play this game where we talk about, like, who should have gotten the prize, who was not recognized. I mean, let me give you one really poignant example.
In 2008, the chemistry Nobel went to three scientists who did work with green fluorescent protein. That’s that jellyfish protein that makes things light up and glow. It’s used in lots of labs. But NPR correspondent Dan Charles, who covered the award – he went and looked for other scientists who might have been worthy. And he learned that two of the Nobel laureates got the gene for this protein from the guy who discovered it. He was named Douglas Prasher.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: I went looking for Douglas Prasher, hoping for a good quote, and reached him by cell phone on the job in Huntsville, Alabama. Prasher is now driving a courtesy shuttle for a car dealership.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The transcript actually identified him as a molecular biologist/car dealership driver. And so, you know, he told Dan Charles that he just had trouble getting research funding and had to leave science and get another job. So, you know, two of the Nobel winners invited him and his wife to attend the ceremony as guests, and they thanked him in their speeches. But this just shows you kind of what a crapshoot the Nobel can be. I think sometimes scientists are chagrined, you know, because they’re happy to get this prize. It’s a huge honor. But the culture of science is that you share the credit, and the rules of the Nobel sometimes don’t let you do that.
SOFIA: Yeah, they really don’t. OK, all right – so our next beef with the Nobels has to do with how the prizes are awarded. You know, since this decision in 1974, Nobel Prizes are not supposed to go to anyone who has died, unless they died after the announcement.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So the argument here is that if you open it up to dead people, then, like, chaos could reign. Like, ’cause there are so many scientists throughout history that could get the Nobel. I mean, like, who? Like Galileo, you know? Trouble is you can make a super critical contribution to something, but if you just happened to die before the Nobel deciders get around to honoring you, that’s it. You’re just out of luck. And, you know, I used to wait every year to see if astronomer Vera Rubin would get the physics prize.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And everybody, you know – I think almost everybody thought she deserved it for her work, you know, on dark matter, which is super important, right? But she died in 2016 without getting the prize, and that was it.
SOFIA: Yeah. And, I mean, I think the thing that bugs me the most about this rule, Nell, is that, you know, we’re only beginning to uncover and understand the contributions of people who were, you know, not and are, frankly, still not celebrated by science. You know, it eliminates kind of our ability to right some of the wrongs of our past – people who were maybe left out due to sexism or racism. And there, you know, are arguably quite a few of those people.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, people have been left out. I mean, I think that’s undeniable. And, you know, there’s another side to it, which is that the Nobel Prize is never revoked, which means that whatever you do after you win, you will always have the prize. You will always represent science to the public on the highest level. And you know, James Watson, one of the people who won for the discovery of the structure of DNA – he’s been ostracized by many in the scientific community for making racist and sexist remarks. But his Nobel Prize…
GREENFIELDBOYCE: …Hasn’t been revoked. And, you know, add to that the fact that Rosalind Franklin’s experimental results, which were completely essential to his doing the work that won him the prize, you know – no one nominated her for the Nobel before she died. So she will never be recognized with the Nobel. I mean, there’s just so many aspects to this that strike people as being, you know…
SOFIA: OK, Nell, so we’ve hit the main points. These prizes are exclusionary. They are set in stone. They also distort how science is actually done, which, you know, leads me to my final question. Should we continue to celebrate these awards like we do?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: There are good things about the Nobel Prizes. You know, the people I talked to who’ve even expressed concerns about the disparities in gender or racial representation still feel like it’s an opportunity for science and scientists to be recognized on a global stage once a year, you know? And it means that people stop and reflect that something they use every day was made possible by people doing basic science. Like, for example, there was this prize celebrating the development of lithium…
GREENFIELDBOYCE: …Batteries, which we all use in our phones and our computers. And, you know, it’s nice for people to just take a moment and think about what made that possible and how science can really change the world, change our lives. So that’s positive. That’s a good thing. And it reminds people that science matters. But, you know, I wonder whether there are other ways to achieve those goals that maybe come with less extra baggage.
You know, thinking about, at Rockefeller University, that thing called the dude wall that was covered with those, you know, portraits of prize winners – I mean, they’re actually redesigning that wall to include the winners of other prizes, you know, other big science prizes. And so, you know, adding more of those winners, you add more women. You can add, you know, more racial diversity. I mean, it just makes me wonder if there are things we could be doing that would keep all the good parts about what we want when we think about the Nobel Prize coverage without falling into…
GREENFIELDBOYCE: …These problems that – it just seems like it’s hard to get around them if you’re covering the Nobels.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thanks for having me on the show. And you know, it’s going to be exciting…
This episode was produced by Brit Hanson, fact checked by Ariela Zebede (ph) and edited by Geoff Brumfiel. I’m Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
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World news – US – The Nobels Overwhelmingly Go to Men â This Year’s Prize For Medicine Was No Exception : Short Wave