Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

It’s time to update the Nobel prizes

The Nobel Foundation must recognize that the world of science has broadened spectacularly since the late 1800s

In the mid-1960s, Robert Paine, a scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, discovered a hidden organizing principle in the coastal ecosystem he was studying. When a certain species of starfish was present, a panoply of algae, limpets, barnacles, anemones and mussels lived in delicate, dynamic balance. But when he removed the starfish and tossed them into the ocean, that balance collapsed and one kind of mussel took over.

Paine coined a term to describe the starfish’s outsize influence: keystone species. Keystone species have since been identified in forests, in grasslands, in the ocean and even in the human gut. The concept has become one of ecology’s guiding theoretical principles, and it has had a profound impact, inspiring, among other things, the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, where they help control elk that can otherwise overgraze aspen and willow trees.

If Paine, who died in June, had been a physicist, chemist or cell biologist, such a fundamental, broadly applicable and hugely influential paradigm would probably have put him in contention for a Nobel prize. But Paine was an ecologist, so he had no shot at the prestige, power and wealth that the Nobels bestow. The same can be said for the world’s top geologists, oceanographers, meteorologists, climatologists, crop scientists, botanists, entomologists and practitioners of many other fields.

Science’s reach has relentlessly expanded to include ever more facets of our world. But the world’s most important scientific honour society has largely ignored that evolution. As a result, the Nobel prizes, which will be announced this week, are reserved for an ever-shrinking fraction of the scientific community and are receding from the interests of society at large. It’s high time for an update.

The Nobel prizes were the brainchild of Alfred B. Nobel, an idiosyncratic Swedish industrialist best known in his lifetime for inventing dynamite. Having no immediate heirs, he declared that the bulk of his fortune would be used to annually reward the persons “who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind" in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. When Nobel wrote his will in 1895, the three scientific fields he named were indeed generating the most spectacular discoveries, and Nobel prizes soon recognized world-changing advances: X-rays, radioactivity, artificial fertilizer, vitamins, nuclear fission and many more.

But the world of science has broadened and matured spectacularly since the late 1800s. The British Ecological Society, the world’s oldest ecology organization, was founded in 1913. Geology received a huge boost in 1915, when Alfred Wegener proposed continental drift, which led to a unified explanation for phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanoes and mountain formation. The first computerized weather model was produced only in the 1950s, and climate science has grown exponentially since the danger of global warming was first recognized some 60 years ago.

Discoveries in those fields are increasingly critical for addressing today’s most pressing problems. And yet, the Nobel Foundation has taken no meaningful steps to recognize them.

Some argue that the Nobel disciplines are still the “purest" sciences, and as such deserve extra recognition. But many scientists and even some Nobel laureates say that much of today’s most exciting and important science resides at the borders of traditional disciplines or in ones that don’t have a dedicated prize.

In 2009, 10 prominent scientists and engineers, including a Nobel laureate, wrote an open letter asking the foundation to recognize more areas of science. They pointed out that a similar evolution was recognized with the 1968 establishment of a Nobel-calibre prize in economics, defusing the counter-argument that the foundation was constrained by Nobel’s will. The Nobel Foundation responded, in essence, by saying the committees that made the awards “have been reasonably successful up till now in tracing major developments of modern civilization".

The Nobels’ narrow focus creates a two-tiered scientific universe, wherein only select fields have access to a uniquely powerful publicity mechanism. Nobel laureates receive media exposure and increases in professional status and opportunities that are all but unequalled in science. They frequently meet with high-level policy makers, and their prizes are leveraged for prestige and resources by their institutions and countries.

That the world’s most important scientific honour society has largely ignored seismic shifts in science could harm not just Nobel-ineligible scientists, but science’s overall standing in broader society. Stagnating or declining funding and increasing political attacks on science suggest that in many countries, it already has.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t celebrate those who are honoured by the Nobel committees. But as wonderful as it is to advance physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, it’s at least as wonderful to tackle environmental problems, predict natural disasters, demystify how species interact, and educate a population to grapple with complex and important scientific topics. The Nobel organization should take a leap into the present and shine its bright light more widely—and unshackle itself from a 19th century vision of what makes good science.

©2016/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Gabriel Popkin is a science and environmental writer.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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