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Is the Nobel Prize really all it's cracked up to be?

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Oct 4, 2017

Yesterday, the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded for the LIGO detection of gravitational waves. Let me be clear: I'm happy that this monumental work of physics is getting the recognition it deserves. This announcement comes on the heels of the fourth binary black hole merger detected, and watching the progress in this endeavor over the past few years has been amazing. It truly is groundbreaking, opening up an entire new field of observational astronomy. So, my congratulations to the three winners and the teams of people who made the discovery possible.

But.

The Nobel Prize is generally considered by the public (and many scientists) to be the highest form of recognition in science. I felt this way, too, for a long time, but that belief has been eroding away for a few years now. Today, I have serious misgivings about the Nobel, specifically the physics prize. The awarding of the prize is flawed in serious ways, and these must be addressed.

For example, the rules stipulate it can only be given to three people, no matter how many worked on the project — LIGO had over 1,100 people listed on the journal paper for the first gravitational wave discovery. Giving the prize to just a few people at the very top gives a distorted view on how science works; big breakthroughs are very rarely done by lone scientists.

That may be relatively easy to fix by changing the rules of the prize; it’s been done before (originally it was only given to one person, not three.). But what may be harder to fix, and what may be more systemic, is what appears to be a very strong gender and race bias to the prize in general and the physics award in particular.

No black person has ever won a Nobel science prize (though several have won for peace or literature). Only two women have ever won the physics prize, the last before I was born (and her path to winning was by no means easy). Even accounting for the lower number of women and people of color in this field of science historically, this is an extremely low award rate.

Bustle magazine has an interesting article on the issue of women; they make the point that overcoming gender (and, it can be extrapolated, race) bias needs a conscious effort. It’s possible men nominate men, while women don’t nominate women. Unfortunately, the nomination list for the prize is embargoed for 50 years, so we only have data up to 1966. Still, searching for women in that list shows that not many up to that time were even nominated. Are more nominated now? We won’t know for a long time. So, it’s not clear if, now, this is a bias on the part of the nominators or the selection committee. Or both. Bustle notes that there are several women on the Nobel committee as well, but without more data I think we’re just guessing here.

One thing we do know is that so few women winning the physics prize is not due to a lack of potential candidates. There have been many deserving of the recognition, perhaps none more than Vera Rubin for providing the first convincing evidence of dark matter decades ago. This was further supported by observations of the Bullet Cluster published in 2006, which clinched the reality of dark matter. LIGO only detected gravitational waves in 2015, and yet the discovery won the prize this year.

Sadly, Dr. Rubin died last year, and the Nobel rules state they cannot be given posthumously.

I have heard rumors among astronomers for years that the physics prize has a bias against astronomy, and that's why Rubin never won. But that's clearly not the case here. The 2011 prize for the discovery of dark energy slams the door shut on that argument. Mind you, the discovery of dark energy was announced in 1998 and won a Nobel just 13 years later. Rubin's work was done in the 1970s.

Perhaps the situation will get better with time, as we become more aware of our own biases and work to be better so that the numbers of women and people of color in the science increase (Quora also has an interesting discussion on the latter). But that’s a pretty steep ask. “Be patient” is not generally how things get fixed. A more pro-active stance is required.

Mind you, I have friends who won the prize for physics, and I worked on a project that led to members of the team winning the physics Prize in 2011. I’ll note that Brian Schmidt, one of the three sharing that prize, donated some of the money to the Australian Academy of Science to promote gender equity.

I have long considered the Nobel Prize to be a huge honor. And, while it's certainly deserved by anyone who wins it, I think it's important to note who doesn’t win it, and as scientists we must ask why.