Are the Science Nobels Stuck in the 20th Century? – OZY

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Most cutting-edge science today is collaborative and global — a reality the Nobel Prizes refuse to recognize.

Every October brings an air of anticipation to research universities and laboratories around the world, as scientists wait for the announcements of the coveted Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry — awards won by giants such as Albert Einstein and Marie Curie in years gone by.

It’s been that way for decades. Yet in recent years, there’s an equally unmistakable, collective sigh of frustration that often accompanies the actual announcements. That’s rarely because of any disagreement over the credentials of the winners. It mostly has to do with the fact that archaic rules often prevent the awarding of the prize to several researchers and institutions that deserve it.

Only the Peace Prize can be awarded to a group or an institution. All other Nobels, including in the sciences, medicine,

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American universities dominate the science Nobels

Nobel Prize
Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

The Nobel science prizes reward not only the individual laureates, but also their universities, a competition won by far by the United States’ prestigious faculties.


Since the Nobel Physics, Chemistry and Medicine Prizes were created in 1901 and the award for Economics in 1969, 703 researchers have been rewarded for a total of 441 works, according to the official Nobel website (nobelprize.org).

Americans are by far the biggest nationality represented in the Nobel science list, with 248 of them, or 35 percent, born in the United States.

However, the domination by American universities becomes even greater when the work of researchers of other nationalities is taken into account: 57 percent of the Nobels distributed—or 251 out of the 441 pieces of work rewarded—have gone to researchers linked to an American university at the time of the prize.

University of California top

The University of California is

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In an era of team science, are Nobels out of step?

With the 2020 Nobel prizes this week comes a recurrent question: has the world’s most prestigious awards for physics, chemistry and medicine — first conferred in 1901 — lost touch with the way modern science is conducted?

A century ago, landmark discoveries took place mostly in the mind or laboratory of a single individual. 

More recently, big breakthroughs in the hard sciences are generally collaborations involving dozens, sometimes hundreds of researchers working in separate but interlocking fields. 

Two teams totalling 1,500 scientists, for example, were behind the landmark detection earlier this year of a so-called intermediate mass black hole.

Major advances in science have also become hugely reliant on technology, which is sometimes used — especially in physics — to detect phenomena theorised to exist before today’s scientists were even born.  

“The Nobel Committee’s refusal to make an award to more than three people had led to manifest injustices,” Martin

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