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Fix The Nobels Already

This paper comes out and states what chemists have known for some time now: the Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been changing over the years, very likely as a deliberate action on the part of the committee that awards it. It’s now more properly described as the award for “Chemistry or the Life Sciences”.

That the Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been waylaid by achievements in the life sciences is neither a reflection that chemistry has been intellectually stagnant nor that chemists have been undeserving of the Nobel Prize. In fact, there are many chemists-in-waiting whose research contributions merit a Nobel Prize. Indeed, there is an increasing population of unannointed but dead chemists deserving the onetime though now-nonexistent Posthumous Nobel Prize. And the same can be said for unannointed but deserving life scientists.

To the disadvantage of deserving chemists, the glaring fact is, there are so many achievements in the life sciences that they cannot all be recognized within the rubric of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine where such achievements were once honored. Indeed, there is not enough “space” to honor all the chemists who deserve Nobel Prize, and perhaps there never could be enough space. . .

I’ll bet that many of you (like me) were unaware that there had ever been posthumous Nobel awards, and it’s true that there were never any in the sciences. But this article notes that the 1931 Literature prize went to Erik Axel Karlfeldt after his death, as did the 1961 Peace prize to Dag Hammarskjöld, both in apparent flat contradiction to the terms of Nobel’s will. In 1974 the rules were quietly modified to eliminate such awards. There’s another change like that which I also had no idea about: in 1968, the “three or fewer awardees” rule was made explicit. Apparently before that a Nobel could in theory be shared by up to four people, although in practice that never happened. I had no idea; I had thought that Nobel’s original terms had the limit of three people. And while we’re talking changes to the Nobel process, 1968 was of course the year that the Swedish Central Bank instituted an Economics prize “in memory of Alfred Nobel”. Every year during the awards season people point out that the Economics prize isn’t technically a “real” Nobel, since it’s not actually affiliated with the Nobel Foundation and was not provided for in Nobel’s will, but it’s interesting that (1) the Nobel Foundation let this parallel prize be established that first time and (2) that nothing like that has ever happened since.

The paper goes into a great amount of detail on the question of how separate chemistry and biochemistry are (and have been) and how separate the latter is from the ostensible domain of the Physiology or Medicine prize. Prize winners over time in these categories are analyzed by where they published during their careers, as a reasonable proxy for what field they were in (or at least thought that they were in!) Overall, the Physiology/Medicine prize has stayed almost exclusively in the life sciences, while the Chemistry prize has undergone its easily demonstrated broadening/dilution/shift in focus.

There’s also an extensive analysis of the makeup of the Chemistry Nobel’s committee members and their scientific fields of expertise over the years. And as you might have guessed, there is indeed an increasing percentage of biochemistry/life sciences members, with presumably a parallel appreciation for scientific accomplishments in these areas. But there’s a chicken-and-egg question there, too: no one can deny that these fields have been of great scientific interest over the last few decades, either, so it’s not like this is necessarily some top-down decision to recast the awards committees.

This does lead to some quietly awkward moments, though. The paper notes that a 2001 essay on the 100 years of the chemistry prize (an official review endorsed by the Nobel Foundation) was written by two biochemists, and contains several errors of fact and arguable statements, all of which have to do with chemical topics (see Talbe SI-6 here). Similarly, a 2015 book on crystallography and the Nobel awards, edited by (and partially written by) members of the awards committee, gives the impression that Dorothy Hodgkins’ crystallography work (in itself absolutely unimpeachable, of course) was the first determination that what we now know as the beta-lactam antibiotics had that four-membered ring structure. But that structure had been proposed with a lot of solid chemical evidence behind it some time before by several chemists – R.B. Woodward advocated it, for example, although there were others before him and he came around to the idea a bit later. For organic chemists, Hodgkins’ results were a confirmation of the beta-lactam structure, but the Nobel crystallography book would make a person think that the X-ray marked its discovery instead.

The paper has a great deal of detail – more than many readers will want to work though – about the organization of the various Nobel prize committees. Suffice it to say that they are very much in communication with each other, and have been for decades, and that they clearly engage in a good deal of coordination about which prizes might go where, and when. That goes for planning for future awards, too. The expansion of the Chemistry award (whatever one’s opinion of it) is no accident, whether it’s been done via some directive of the Nobel Foundation or via the preferences of the individual committee members themselves. But is this the best way to handle things? The authors think not:

Is the current structure of the Nobel Prizes optimal for the future? The evidence is, “certainly not.” In a way, the Nobel Foundation and the Nobel’s prize-awarding bodies have produced a patchwork of change over the past several decades, a force-fit into the schema of Alfred Nobel. That strategy will not suffice forever.

Truly, the question is not if but when. Today’s packaging of the Nobel Prizes must change. . .

That’s the question: if the Nobel folks have decided that posthumous prizes are awardable, at least in some categories (and why just those?) and then decided that they aren’t, if they’ve resisted expansion of the prize categories but given tacit blessing to the Economics prize decades after the others were instituted, etc., then the argument that they’re just bound by the terms of Nobel’s will aren’t tenable. There have been cases where a foundation established via a detailed bequest has held on to the original terms for as long as it could (indeed, until it faced bankruptcy, as in the case of the Barnes Foundation art collection). Albert Barnes (himself a chemist, actually, who made his fortune off a silver nitrate antiseptic preparation) would surely be horrified that his artworks are now displayed in Philadelphia rather than in the gallery he had built for them, and are open to the public year-round rather than on his explicitly stated and restrictive schedule. But you know what? Barnes has been dead for a long time now, and so has Alfred Nobel, whose foundation hasn’t even always honored his wishes as much as Barnes’ honored his.

As for those terms: I’ve thought for some time that such posthumous foundations should probably have some sort of sunset provision in them. There is a limit to how long the living should have to honor the wishes of the dead. Deciding that there Is Not and Must Never Be a Nobel prize in biology (to pick one big example) seems increasingly ridiculous as the decades go on. Science goes on the way it goes no matter what Alfred Nobel thought before his death in 1896 – he was no prophet and no Hari Seldon proposing some centuries-long plan. He didn’t even set up a body to administer the prizes – all that was done on the fly after his death, and we don’t even know how long he envisioned them being awarded.

So I agree with the authors of this paper: the Nobel Foundation should admit to what they’ve been doing in private, which is to alter the character of the prizes over time. And they should not only admit it, they should embrace it, and modernize the whole system to get rid of the weird unfair quirkiness that disfigures the process as it stands. Will that cheapen the prizes in general? Well, it could, but it doesn’t have to – and frankly, the way things have been going, the alternative is that they go on cheapening themselves through endless controversies. And if you think the science prizes are a mess, wander over to Peace and Literature and behold the smoking wasteland – the appalling mess that is the Nobel Prize for Literature should be warning enough for anyone. This is the danger that all long-running awards face, and if nothing is done you end up with people paying attention (if they do at all) mostly because of the arguments, the slights, and the mistakes, which is like going to an auto race just to see some spectacular crashes. Do it. The chance of Nobel’s ghost coming back to haunt the committee seem worth the risk.



58 comments on “Fix The Nobels Already”

  1. KazooChemist says:

    “no Hari Seldon proposing some centuries-long plan” I love it. My all time favorite SciFi series. I think I will have to dust off the books and read them once again.

  2. reindeer23 says:

    Dr. Ralph Steinman’s 2011 Nobel was also effectively a posthumous prize, having passed away 2 days before the announcement.

    1. Petar says:

      But he was already a winner, but news did not reach him on time.

  3. bhip says:

    Every year. No call from Stockholm. Sonsabitches.

  4. dearieme says:

    Fundamental physics has been stuck for decades. Until further notice award the Physics Nobel to physicists one year in ten, and to chemists and other physical scientists or engineers in the other nine. That means there would be two prizes effectively reserved for biochem, cell biology, genetics, medicine, and so on which would be a fair reflection of advances and importance.

    As for the economics counterfeit prize, keep it for economics one year in two and award it to astrologists for the other year.

    1. Dr. Manhattan says:

      “Fundamental physics has been stuck for decades.” They’re not stuck! Why they have String theory, M-theory and the multiverse. All they need is proof that any of those have any validity.
      Currently reading Sabine Hossenfelder’s “Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray”

      (Wait, Hari Seldon isn’t real?)

    2. lusii says:

      Come now Dearieme, Nobelist Paul Krugman has never been wrong about anything.

      1. matt says:

        Linus Pauling was never wrong about anything either.

  5. chemistclowns says:

    u know the funny thing about chemistry, most of the people that do it suck!
    I’ve worked in so many labs staffed by people from big name labs at prestigious universities and yet they still can’t do basic chemistry, it’s a joke.
    The sad truth is smart capable people don’t go into science, they go into business or investment or whatever so they can make money and have a life.

    1. lmfao says:

      you tell them buddy!

    2. Mad Chemist says:

      Apparently, you haven’t bothered to verify what chemists actually make.

    3. Regularguy says:

      AlL cHeMiStS R dUmB

  6. KwadGuy says:

    The chemistry Nobel may have its issues (too many prizes essentially for crystallography; prizes shared by individuals because the more appropriate person was dead; some prizes given prematurely–Mossbauer anyone?). But in the end, it’s not a joke and if there are good scientists who die waiting in the wings, no one feels that the long list of winners is a bad one. Maybe not the IDEAL one, but not bad.

    Compare that to the eye-rolling that other Nobels have invoked with prizes to rappers, musicians, and–in the case of the Peace Prize–prizes given for stuff that the committee hoped was going to happen.

    Given all the room for shenanigans if they start to play with the chemistry prize, I’d probably rather see things stay more or less the same. (Which is to say only very slowly changing around the edges as they have been, rather than the introduction of new mandates).

    1. Anonymous says:

      KwadGuy, “The chemistry Nobel may have its issues (too many prizes essentially for crystallography; prizes shared by individuals because the more appropriate person was dead” – I am thinking of some (bio) xtal prizes that pretty much ignored all of the underlying chemistry, enzymology, biochem, physiology, etc. that explained what was going on in the systems. In two cases that I know of, the non-xtal collaborators who shed much light on the structures and functions of the targets were sincerely very happy that their colleagues won the Nobels and not at all jealous (at least not publicly or in any way that I heard about). As an experimental scientist myself, I think that those “wet bench” researchers deserve enormous, Nobel-level, credit for elucidating so much with brilliant, careful experiments, logical deductions, etc.. (I am referring to the dozens of students and post-docs who did the work, not just the PIs.)

      Just to make sure that new readers of In The Pipeline know about it, I want to refer them to the Nobel Chem Prize for Green Fluorescent Protein (link in my handle). The essential work of Douglas Prasher was totally excluded from recognition. Nevertheless, Prasher said about the 3 awardees, “I’m really happy for them. I was really surprised that particular topic carried that much weight.”

      The Nobel Peace Prize has often been awarded to organizations, not individuals (Red Cross, Doctors w/o Borders, etc.). I think that the Nobel science prizes should recognize the discoverY, not the discoverERS. The Nobel Committee can then name a whole bunch of contributors, living or not, and ask for brief descriptions of their contributions for public consumption. I also think that the Committee should be able to update or correct such awards, e.g., the GFP example above. If the original award had recognized “GFP” and mentioned only the work of Chalfie, Tsien, and Shimomura, the committee should be allowed to go back and add references to Prasher and other important contributors.

      1. A Nonny Mouse says:

        Sadly Moncada missed out for both prostaglandins (doing the real work with Vane) and nitric oxide (spending Wellcome’s money getting others to do the work).

  7. johnnyboy says:

    If we could harness all the mental energy that humans dedicate to the process of congratulating themselves with awards, we could probably rid ourselves of fossil fuels overnight. The obsession of scientists with the Nobels is as unseemly as that of minor celebrities with Oscars and other golden globes. The idea that nowadays major scientific advances are due to one idea, produced by one person (or up to 3 max, to be Nobel-compliant) is just ridiculous. Let it go people – dust to dust and all that.

    1. NotHF says:

      Exactly, my solution to the Nobels is to care less what a few dozen elderly Swedes think.

    2. Druid says:

      Worse, the Nobel prize is the pinnacle of unfairness in science by ignoring the contributions of team members, and then makes itself ridiculous by offering large cash prizes to people in their 90’s. And it makes life easy for lazy journalists when they need scientific opinions. The Fields Medal (ageist as only for under-40s) works better because it encourages lone mathematicians to spends years working on intractable problems with no obvious commercial value (at the time).

    3. anon says:

      Yes. By far the best way to fix Nobels would be to stop giving them.

    4. Ed says:

      The idea is that the Nobel prizes bestow honor on the scientists. I think that in actuality Nobel borrows from the achievement of the scientists to add to Nobel’s reputation.

  8. TroyBoy says:

    Wow! James D. Watson has always said that the reason Rosalind Franklin did not share in the Nobel Prize was that it was limited to 3 people and that she died before the award was given. If both of those reasons are NOT true (even discussed on her Wikipedia page), then it just boils down to plain sexism. It becomes even more important to correct this injustice and award her the Nobel Prize posthumously.

    1. NMH says:

      Her main contribution was improving the 2-d fibers of DNA so that she could resolve the mixture of A and B forms of DNA, allowing a higher resolution picture of both forms. Some would argue that the prize should not go to someone who merely improve a technique. I’m personally not sure of that.

    2. gwern says:

      “I’ll bet that many of you (like me) were unaware that there had ever been posthumous Nobel awards, and it’s true that there were never any in the *sciences*.”

      1. cancer_man says:

        In 2011, Ralph Steinmann died days before the committee announced his prize in physiology or medicine, so it was awarded to him posthumously.

        1. gwern says:

          They didn’t know that, and in any case, last I checked, 2011 comes after 1962, and not the other way around…

  9. db says:

    I couldn’t disagree more with the opinion that there should be sunset provisions and that “There is a limit to how long the living should have to honor the wishes of the dead.”

    Were I someday to possess enough wealth to endow an influential foundation to carry my legacy beyond my own death along paths I feel appropriate, I would want it to adhere as strictly to my wishes as possible. If faced with a time limit beyond which, statutorily or otherwise, my bequest would be used for other purposes, I would design into the foundation a mechanism for its dissolution prior to that point.

    If such a provision were not legally possible, I would do the best I could to either dissolve my entire wealth within my lifetime or to make use of it in ways that would very publicly express my displeasure with not being able to enforce my preferred stipulations for the use of my wealth beyond my death.

    Alternatively I would rather see it entirely destroyed than to be potentially put to uses counter to my wishes.

    1. Druid says:

      Wow – how did you escape from that 19th century Gothic novel? If you don’t like what happens in your afterlife – haunt me!

      1. Jeff says:

        You miss the point. People are free to do whatever they want to do — in their own name. But if someone establishes an organization or a prize or a fund and wants its purpose and what it represents to stand over time, that should be their right. To change what a person established and claim that it still represents them is deceptive at best.

        1. Druid says:

          If you leave your property to your children or other relatives, they will be free to do what they like with it – an important freedom. You could leave it in a trust with restrictive covenants on it, as in the Gothic novel, but these trusts can be broken if the beneficiaries agree, and unless there are massive tax benefits, they often are broken. The Nobel Foundation probably survives in its form because the Trustees also enjoy many benefits. The Nobel Foundation is exempt from all taxes in Sweden and investment taxes in the USA, The living have rights too, one of which is to expect investment funds to pay taxes.

          1. db says:

            If you want to argue from the position of “living people have rights to expect [others] to pay taxes,” that’s up to you, but that’s a pretty significant stretch of the concept of “rights” in my world.

          2. Druid says:

            db – The Nobel Foundation is not a charity, it is a trust, so why should it not be taxed on profits as a capital fund? Presumably because of its political influence. Anyway, the Foundation has deviated from strict reading of the will several times, which I will not bore you with. The covenant that amuses me is the one by Isabella Stewart Gardner, that all the art in her house, now the museum, has to be displayed exactly as it was during her life, which means that the curators have to leave gaps, some large, where 13 were stolen in 1990.

      2. db says:


        Seriously though, I would endow a foundation to carry out *my* wishes, not some random a****le’s. I might throw up some amount for “stuff I can’t yet imagine,” but if I’m ponying up big cash to advance the fields of things I’m interested in, it’s going to be on my terms.

        1. db says:

          hmmm, now you have me thinking. Maybe a prize for literature…to be awarded only on dark and stormy nights.

          1. Druid says:

            Yeah, cool, the Dark & Stormy Night Prize. I would celebrate that. It could go unchanged forever but only if you word your will very very carefully. Written in blood.

  10. Philly biochemist says:

    Comparing the legacies of Nobel and Barnes is hardly equitable Breaking the Barnes will from several conflicts that had existed since the beginning along with declining financial support that only could be resolved by selling major contributions, complete gallery, or reorganizing the terms of the will. The latter took more than a decade to decide with amount of potential damage to valuable works of art in a declining environment during the period. Granted that the experience in the new modern building on the Parkway in Philadelphia compared to the original location on Latches Lane in Lower Merion lacks am amount of grittiness, authenticity, and impact, the artwork is now being preserved in a professional manner not done before for the benefit of future generations. For those who have not had the opportunity to view the collection, it’s well worth a visit.

    1. c says:

      To be fair, their selection of literature is quite adequate.

  11. my says:

    I understood the Nobel Prizes, and a the history of science in general, much better after reading “The Politics of Excellence”, which focuses on the physics and chemistry prizes:

  12. ScientistSailor says:

    Speaking of the literature prize, you should all listen to Bob Dylan’s acceptance lecture:

  13. AlloG says:

    Da US has da most prize winners more than anybody- Those Swedes don’t even come close- maybe one or 2 winners-dey look like Canada! I say we invade Sweden, take da Nobel prize away from them- and we can do what we want!

    Whats Sweden gonna do- throw fondue cheese on us? Make us eat candy fish? Deys a bunch of old blondes anyway- and we know how they think as socialists and screwing in light bulbs.

    1. minc says:

      stop david

  14. William J. Jackson says:

    As well intentioned as he was, he was not at all farseeing!. Had he tried to look ahead, based on changes in his past 20 years, he would have forseen the flowering of technology (at least in part) and he would have established a way for the Nobels to evolve to new disciplines under the aegis of the Nobel Cimmittee so it would maintain relevancy AND add new fields.

    1. Nat says:

      Or Nobel might have assumed that other rich people would create other scientific awards in the future, and it wasn’t his problem to figure out how to please everybody. Why does this have to be a zero-sum game?

  15. Bitter old chemist3 says:

    It’s been a long time since the physiology or medicine prize was awarded to a physiologist. This prize also goes to molecular biology largely. And don’t get me started on the Bank of Sweden economics prize being called a Nobel…

    1. mjs says:

      What about 2019? Chemistry for work on chemistry of great practical importance, honoring a 97-year-old researcher in a timely manner. Physiology or medicine for characterizing a major process in cell physiology with important medical implications.

  16. “There is a limit to how long the living should have to honor the wishes of the dead.”

    What exactly do you mean, Dr. Lowe?

    1. Ben Franklin says:

      In 2020, all Nobels should go to DJT.
      Only he can do everything.
      Including rewriting the US constitution

  17. tlp says:

    Exerpt from Nobel’s will: “All of my remaining realisable assets are to be disbursed as follows: the capital, converted to safe securities by my executors, is to constitute a fund, the interest on which is to be distributed annually as prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind. ”
    When did they start stretching that “in the preceding year” part?

    1. HFM says:

      You could make the argument that, once a big discovery has become part of the scientific ecosystem, it’s more important on a year-to-year basis than it was when it was first discovered. I’m pretty sure that GFP has done more for humankind in the past year than it did the year it was discovered, even though it’s well and truly old news by this point.

      Also, the stuff that’s “obviously” important in the year it was discovered…maybe we don’t need to be rewarding that any more than we actually do. I don’t know if the world needs any more incentives. At best, you’d reward massive, though maybe not so innovative, projects that everyone acknowledges as useful (the Human Genome Project would have won in its year). On average you’d probably just be rewarding the projects that are impressive due to sheer bloody-mindedness (e.g. the total synthesis of some horrifying natural product with 436 chiral centers). Stuff that’s actually important often takes its time to settle in.

  18. InfMP says:

    Seeman also mentioned during his talk at ACS SD 2019 that the nobels were originally intended to be awarded in the same year that the work was done!!!
    Nowadays you need to wait until you are close to death to get your prize.

    1. dearieme says:

      “Nowadays you need to wait until you are close to death to get your prize.”

      The Wuhan virus may mean that many of us are close to death. That’ll simplify things a bit.

  19. Simon Auclair the Great and Terri2 says:

    So the dark and stormy night contest already exists.

    Its called the Bullwer Lytton and it is fucking hilarious.

  20. idiotraptor says:

    ..”then the argument that they’re just bound by the terms of Nobel’s will tenable.”
    Derek, just a typo. Your written grammar and proof reading is always quite good. This jumped out at me.

  21. idiotraptor says:

    ..”then the argument that they’re just bound by the terms of Nobel’s will ” aren’t ” tenable.”

    Supreme irony!

  22. idiotraptor says:

    ..”then the argument that they’re just bound by the terms of Nobel’s will (aren’t) tenable.”

    Ha! The supreme irony!

  23. Pontus Gagge says:

    They are, of course, bound by their stiftelseförordning (the terms of the trust), which *can* be changed under Swedish law, but only with the blessing of Kammarkollegiet (the Swedish authority regulating, among other things, trusts). Which is generally conservative, as they should be. No foundation or trust is eternal: sooner or later, they mess up their finances and go bust. Any sunsetting regulation also decreases the likelihood of filthy rich people using their money for beneficial purposes once they’re done with it…

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