Scientists call for overhaul of the Nobels

By Peter Griffin 02/10/2009 2


This week a high-profile group of scientists had a letter published in New Scientist that calls for the Nobel prizes for science to be revamped because the awards are too narrow to reflect the breadth of modern science. The Nobel Prize winners will be announced next week.

A few choice quotes:

Many of these fields, as well as these challenges, do not fit well into the remit of the prizes that he created. If the World Health Organization were to eradicate malaria, for example, the achievement might not qualify for any of the existing prizes.

Fundamental breakthroughs in areas such as neuroscience and ecology, some of which will eventually help tackle the threats mentioned above, are also going unrecognised.

We appreciate that the foundation is bound by Nobel’s will. But we also note that the foundation has shown flexibility in the past, the creation of the economics prize in 1968 being one example.

So what are they proposing?

1. The creation of Nobel prizes for Global Environment and Public Health. The new prizes would focus on applications of science rather than basic research. As with As with the existing peace prize, organisations would be eligible.

2. The expansion of, or an addition to, the prize for physiology or medicine to recognise contributions from across the life sciences.

The scientists who signed the letter

Larry Brilliant

President, Skoll Urgent Threats Fund and adviser, Google.org

Rodney Brooks

Panasonic Professor of Robotics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and

founder of iRobot Corp and Heartland Robotics

Peter Diamandis

Chairman and CEO, X Prize Foundation

Tim Hunt

Cell Cycle Control Laboratory, Cancer Research UK

David King

Director, Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford

Lynn Margulis

Distinguished University Professor, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Steven Pinker

Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor, Harvard University

Peter Raven

Director, Missouri Botanical Garden

Frans de Waal

Director, Living Links Center and C.H. Candler Professor of Psychology, Emory

University

E.O. Wilson

Pellegrino University Professor, Emeritus, Harvard University

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2 Responses to “Scientists call for overhaul of the Nobels”

  • Instead of reorganising the existing Nobel prizes wouldn’t a better idea be for someone to fund additional prizes in these new proposed categories? That is why there are prizes such as the Fields medal in mathematics. There will still be work worthy of Nobel prizes in the existing fields so why disadvantage them. It is interesting that AIDS is mentioned as an area where a new prize is needed when the 2008 Nobel prize in Physiology and Medicine was awarded (partially) for identifying HIV.
    Surely Alfred Nobel, as the person supplying the funding for the prizes, is entitled to have his wishes adhered to? Perhaps someone like Bill Gates could fund the additional prizes? The Gates prize in climate research, or psychology etc?

  • You’ve got a point drmike, but there is a precedent for expanding or changing the nature of the awards – as the creation of the economics prize suggests. Few awards really have the status of the Nobels. If they are to stay relevant longterm, maybe some changes are needed. But I think you’re right about additional prizes that could be funded by today’s wealthy philanthropists – and Bill Gates is the prime candidate there…

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