Every October, the world awaits a series of announcements from Sweden, as the winners of the prestigious Nobel prizes are named. This year they included the physics prize awarded to Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne for the development of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), and the subsequent direct detection of gravitational waves.
Sure, it is one of the great successes of modern science, but remember also that it is the culmination of a century of theory, experimentation and observation.
Founded in 1901, the Nobel prizes each single out a maximum of three living individuals as winners. Many have noted that this does not reflect the process of 21st-century “big science”, with many people collaborating to contribute to advances.
Recent physics prizes, awarded for the finding that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, the discovery of the Higgs boson, and now the work on gravitational waves, have all involved immense, although unrecognised, teams. In this way, the awards perpetuate the myth of the celebrity scientist, lauding the efforts of often old, white men while overlooking an army of younger, supporting researchers.
So, it’s worth asking, just what is the point of the Nobel prizes? To simply recognise world-changing research or inspire the next generation of scientists? Maybe.
But because modern science is almost always international, and well promoted by media-savvy universities, many people will have heard of dark energy, the Higgs boson, or gravitational waves, well before they became the focus of Nobel honours. Other Nobels result from research done decades before, and so present a picture of science past, rather than science present or future.
There is another aspect of the prizes that is not often mentioned: the financial rewards to the winners. Today the Nobel prize is worth more than $1 million, a personal prize pot rather than one that must be spent on research. The Nobel is not alone in this regard, with winners of the Shaw prize netting more than $1.2 million, and the Gruber cosmology prize $500,000.
The story goes that Alfred Nobel established his prizes to assuage his guilt for inventing dynamite – and the fortune he made from it – after reading a premature obituary that described him as the “merchant of death”. I am sure that the foundation stories of the more modern prizes are not so dark, but they have followed Nobel’s lead in providing substantial financial rewards.
While winning such prizes is surely an honour, you have to wonder why the personal rewards have to be so lucrative? If you ask most scientists, they will tell you that their work is about passion, not money. And while many may dream of plaudits, rarely are they driven by the accompanying financial rewards.
There is a growing chorus calling for science prizes, especially the high-profile Nobel, to be reformed to reflect the science and the broad effort behind it. Credit can retain its power even when diluted among huge teams.
And the endowments that are doled out as cash prizes? They could be redirected to those that really need it, to fund and support the faceless early career researchers that truly make science happen.