The Sciences

Why is a Nobel Prize for Men Still Universally Relevant for the Sciences?

The fact that the Nobel Prizes essentially emerge from a contest of, for and by men has not diminished the prizes' reputation very much.

Around this time last week, the world had nine new Nobel Prize winners in the sciences (physics, chemistry and medicine), all but one of whom were white and none of whom were women. Before the announcements began, Göran Hansson, the Swedish scientist in charge of these prizes, had said the selection committee has been taking steps to make the group of laureates more racially and gender-wise inclusive, but it would seem they’re incremental measures, as an editorial in Nature noted.

Hansson and co. seem to find the argument that there aren’t many women in science tenable, ignoring the selection committee’s bizarre oversight of such worthy names as Lise Meitner, Vera Rubin, Chien-Shiung Wu, etc. Hansson needs to understand that the only meaningful change is change that happens right away. Immediacy is paramount because the time for incremental change is long past.

Unfortunately, the fact that the Nobel Prizes essentially emerge from a contest of, for and by men has not diminished the prizes’ reputation very much.

For example, according to the most common comments received in response to articles by The Wire shared on Twitter and Facebook – and always from men, incidentally – the prizes are seen as rewarding excellence that brooks no ‘affirmative action’, whether by race, gender or caste.

This view of scholastic achievement is like a long blade of grass: it sprouts from the ground (the product of strong roots that are out of sight, out of mind), rises straight up and culminates in a sharp tip.

Also read: Do You Speak Differently of the Physics Nobel Prize If a Woman Wins It?

However, achievement is more like a jungle: the scientific enterprise – encompassing research institutions, laboratories, the scientific publishing industry, administration and research funding, social security, availability of social capital, PR, discoverability and visibility, etc. – incorporates many vectors of bias, discrimination and even harassment towards its more marginalised constituents by virtue of having inherited them from the social structures the practice of science is embedded in.

Your success is not your success alone; and if you’re a white, upper-class, English-speaking man, you should certainly ask yourself, as many such men have been prompted to in various walks of life, who you might have displaced.

This isn’t a witch-hunt as much as an opportunity to acknowledge how privilege works and what you can do to make scientific work more equal, equitable and just in future. But the idea that research is a jungle and research excellence a product of complex interactions happening within its thickets hasn’t found meaningful purchase. Many folks still believe science is immune to social forces. Hansson might be one of them if his interview to Nature is anything to go by, where he says:

… we have to identify the most important discoveries and award the individuals who have made them. If we go away from that, then we’ve devalued the Nobel prize, and I think that would harm everyone in the end.

In other words, the Nobel Prizes are just going to look at the world from the top, and probably from a great distance too, condensing the jungle to a cluster of pin-pricks.

Who’s the first person that comes to mind when I say “Nobel Prize for physics”? I bet it’s Albert Einstein. Einstein was a great physicist, so great in fact that his stature as a physicist has over the decades thoroughly transcended his human identity and stamped the Nobel Prize he won in 1921 with an indelible mark of credibility. Now, to win a Nobel Prize in physics – arguably the most prestigious of the three prizes in the sciences – is to stand alongside Einstein himself.

This union between a prize and its laureate isn’t unique to the Nobel or to Einstein. The fact is that prizes are elevated by their winners. When Margaret Atwood wins the Booker, it’s better for the prize than it is for her; when Isaac Asimov won a Hugo Award in 1963, near the start of his career, it was good for him, but it was good for the prize when he won it for the sixth time in 1992 (the year he died). The Nobel Prizes also accrued a substantial amount of prestige this way at a time when it wasn’t much of a problem, apart from the occasional flareup, that they didn’t have many female laureates.

That their laureates have almost always been from Europe and North America further cemented the prizes’ impression that they’re the ultimate signifier of ‘having made it’, paralleling the popular, and not entirely problematic, undercurrent among postcolonial peoples that science is a product of the West and that they’re simply its receivers.

Moreover, the idea of prize as proxy issue has contributed considerably, and in many cases insidiously, to preserving systemic bias at the national as well as international levels. Winning a prize (especially a legitimate one) accords the winner’s work credibility and prestige. And such credibility and prestige could potentially skew future prizes in favour of the same people, who have already won other prizes before.

For example, a friend who is also a scientist recently ranted to me about how, at a conference he had recently attended, another scientist on stage had introduced himself to his audience by mentioning the impact factor of the journals he’d had his papers published in. The impact factor deserves to die because, among other reasons, it attempts to condense multi-dimensional research efforts and the vagaries of scientific publishing into a single number that apparently stands for some kind of prestige when its users should really be honest about its use as a proxy. Evaluators could take one look at it and decide what to do about the candidate. (This isn’t fair but expeditiousness isn’t cheap either.)

When evaluators at different rungs of the career advancement ladder privilege the impact factor, scientists with more papers published earlier in their careers in journals with higher impact factors become exponentially likelier to be recognised for their efforts (probably even irrespective of their quality given the unique failings of high-IF journals, discussed here and here) over time than others.

Also read: What the Nobel Prizes Are Not

Brian Skinner, a physicist at Ohio State University, recently presented a mathematical model of this ‘prestige bias’ and whose amplification depended in a unique way, according him, on a factor called ‘examination precision’. He found that the more ambiguously defined the barrier to advancement is, the more pronounced the prestige bias could get. Put another way, people who have the opportunity to maintain systemic discrimination simultaneously have an incentive to make the points of entry into their club as vague as possible. Sound familiar?

One might argue that the Nobel Prizes are awarded to people at the end of their careers – the average age of a physics laureate is in the late 50s; John Goodenough won the chemistry prize this year at 97 – so the prizes couldn’t possibly increase the likelihood of  future recognition. But the sword cuts both ways: the Nobel Prizes are likelier than not to be the products of a prestige bias amplification themselves, and are therefore not the morally neutral symbols of excellence Hansson and his peers seem to think they are. (The story of Brian Keating, an astrophysicist, could be illuminating at this juncture.)

Finally, and of course, we have capitalism itself – implicated not just in the quantum of prize money accompanying each Nobel (Rs 6.56 crore or $0.9 million) but also in how academic institutions can profit from laureates’ affiliation with them.

Then again, this figure pales in comparison to the amounts that academic institutions know they can rake in by instrumentalising the prestige in the form of donations from billionaires, grants and fellowships from the government, fees from students presented with the tantalising proximity to a Nobel laureate, and, inevitably, press coverage.

The Nobel Prizes are money magnets, and this is also why winning a Nobel Prize is like winning an Academy Award: you don’t get on stage without some lobbying. Each blade of grass has to mobilise its own PR machine, supported in all likelihood by the same institute that submitted their candidature to the laureates selection committee. The Nature editorial called this out as well:

As a small test case, Nature approached three of the world’s largest international scientific networks that include academies of science in developing countries. They are the International Science Council, the World Academy of Sciences and the InterAcademy Partnership. Each was asked if they had been approached by the Nobel awarding bodies to recommend nominees for science Nobels. All three said no.

Taken together, all of these facts and arguments make it clear that the Nobel Prizes are important not because they present a fair or useful picture of scientific excellence but in spite of this.