Friday, October 11, 2013

Should the Nobel Prize be given to collaborations and institutions?

It’s a grey and foggy Friday here. The clouds are hanging around like they’ve been out all night and even the leaves are too tired to jump off the trees. A cold is knocking on the door, or at least my brain is mush and I could need an excuse for that. There’s two guys in front of my window tearing off the balcony. If they don’t drink beer and watch me, they make noise and I’m rather unsuccessful in trying to ignore them. In summary, I’m pretty dysfunctional and in a pissy mood. You don’t want me to write a referee report on your paper in this condition.

To cheer me up, I decided I’ll go and disagree with Sean Carroll on something, just for the fun of it. Sean had a recent Op Ed piece in the NYT arguing that “in the future the [Nobel] prize committee should be allowed to consider institutions and collaborations as well as individuals.” It’s well written and worth a read, so have a look. I’ll grab a coffee and wait till you’re back.

There are three ways to approach the question whether the criteria for the Nobel Prize should be changed. One is to look at Alfred Nobel’s original will. He explicitly stated that the prizes be given to “persons”. But then it’s been a while. Second, one can try to guess whether Nobel would have wanted the criteria to be altered if he would be alive today. For me that’s too much psychology and I’ll leave that to somebody else. Third, we can ask whether it would be beneficial for science or for the communication of science and that seems to me the most fruitful approach.

Sean basically argues that science is a community enterprise and if one honors certain discoveries then credit should be given to everybody involved. Scientists take acknowledgement of contributions very, very seriously because it’s essentially what they live from. That’s the reason for long author lists. These lists keep getting longer as the topics we work on become more involved and the experiments become more complex.

However, science has always been a community enterprise. Every single discovery that has been made became possible only through the work of many others before and alongside those who put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Researchers who study the network dynamics of science refer to breakthrough events as ‘pivot points’. They’re combinations of existing knowledge that solve a problem and create a new basis for future research, not seldom founding entirely new fields. You might be interested to have a look at this paper that visualizes pivot points in citation networks with superstring theory as one example.

It has happened frequently in the history of science that major discoveries were made almost simultaneously by several people. That’s not a coincidence but due to the nature of breakthrough discoveries. They typically combine existing knowledge in just the right way. Having the right knowledge at the right time and seeing the potential of this combination is what makes a genius. And that’s what the Nobel Prize honors.

As I argued earlier, while scientists certainly work together, this collaboration is not a case of true collective intelligence. We don’t do distributed information processing in the communities. It’s still single people who contribute ideas and who hand them on to others who work on them and hand on their contributions and so on. It’s just that the interactions have gotten faster and involve more people who are better connected now than they were a century ago. It has become difficult and infinitely cumbersome to track all the small little contributions that people make.

The Nobel Prize, in my opinion, cannot give credits to everybody involved in a discovery because that’s futile. It should then focus on those on whose work was the basis of a new understanding of nature. It is a prize for persons and individual contributions. There are many scientific societies and foundations who give out prizes and awards and nobody ever complains that somebody gets such a prize when there’ve been many other people working on the same thing. That’s because it is understood that these awards are for persons and their dedication and foresight in the first place, and for the specific topic in the second place.

I don’t know anybody who went into science or pursued their research with the aim of winning a Nobel Prize. It is generally recognized that hard work and intelligence is necessary but not sufficient, and that it also takes a good dose of luck which is beyond our influence. So the Nobel Prize doesn’t actually serve as an incentive, or at least not much so. But the mere fact that the Nobel Prize is awarded to (a few) individuals documents the value of personal sacrifice. Giving such an honor to institutions is akin to doing away with private property in communism and believing that everybody cares for the well-being of the group as they do for their own. It doesn’t work because most people want to be recognized as individuals, not as members of collectives. That’s true also for scientists.

There is another reason why giving the Nobel Prize to collaborations or institutions is not a good idea. Nobel Prize winners like no other scientists become spokespeople for their field of research – and beyond. They are being heard. Nobel Prize winners play an important role in representing the interests of the scientific community. Granted, not all of them might live up to expectations, but I think that most of them are aware of the influence they suddenly acquire. Giving the prize to institutions would throw away this voice that scientists have to speak for them, and they don’t have many of these voices.

So I think the Nobel Prize committee is doing the right thing in giving the prize to persons. Because scientists want to be recognized as people, not as members of a collective.

It has started to rain and the balcony guys have packed their tools and left me with a semi-deconstructed balcony and empty beer bottles. Time to finally write these referee reports; keep the gear-wheels of the system turning.


  1. Hi Bee,

    All good points with which I agree, yet more than anything else I think Nobel realized the world needs heroes and heroines for humanity to express its ambitions and need of meaningful purpose.

    'Without heroes, we are all plain people and don't know how far we can go.

    -Bernard Malamud



  2. I agree with you, Sabine.

    As per some of your other blogs, I agree with you and then some. I disagreed with Sean Carroll's piece on a number of counts. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that IMHO large collaborations and institutions sometimes actively impede scientific progress. Things like groupthink, running with the herd, and consensus can get in the way of scientific progress. That apart, Alfred Nobel made his bequest and made his will, and that's that.

  3. Brilliant, scientists. Unique. And. Human. That. Must. Be good. Nordic. Coffee if you wrote peeved.

  4. Birth of really big stuff is ugly: belittled Bolyai, patent clerk Einstein; Otto Stern dinging the Dirac equation, Lenny Susskind suffering Gell-Mann's laughter in a Coral Gables elevator. Curing gastric ulcers was a witch burning. Pedersen's Nobel Lecture was grotesque (pdf). Higgs, Kibble, Englert, et al. were papering their curriculum vitae. Maiman discovered the laser, then US government-screwed forever after.

    Imagination is obsessive intelligence having too much fun. If Satan is anything, she is a belief system. Committees lugubriously ooze mediocrity. A Nobel Prize is an individual achievement. It honors survival and mocks oxymorons (Peace, Literature, Economics). The sharp needle of inquiry must not be blunted within committees, for both reasons.

  5. I agree with the thrust of this post, and I think a good example is the way other Nobel prizes can be somewhat diluted by awards to institutions.
    In Ireland, one particular academic routinely appears in the media as a 'Nobel laureate' because he was a member of the IPCC team. I think the team do excellent work, but the chap in question isn't even a scientist...hmmm

  6. "It’s a grey and foggy Friday here. The clouds are hanging around like they’ve been out all night and even the leaves are too tired to jump off the trees."

    We are in a poetic mood I see:-)

  7. This text begins by asking if the committee "should be allowed to consider institutions and collaborations", but then it seems to be answering the question whether the they should often/usually/always do so.

    Can't one think that it's usually best to give it to a few persons but that there might be occasions where it's good to give it to a large group or organisation?

  8. The Nobel prize was originally dedicated by Alfred Nobel to findings of practical importance ("greatest benefit on mankind"), which the Higgs boson definitely isn't. The mainstream physics embezzles the Nobel's heritage in this way.

    The theorists in physics have their own prizes already (and much higher than the Nobel's one, btw..) If we would celebrate the theorists into account of physicists, who bring the practical results for human civilization, we shouldn't be surprised with undeniable consequences of such a selection: these practical results will be ignored on behalf of theoretical research. For example the finding of cold fusion would deserve such a prize way way more.

  9. As I've said elsewhere, I agree. Having hundreds or thousands of laureates would weaken the prize. One can debate whether the limit should be 3 or 4 or 5 (this is a change from Nobel's will, which specified 1 person per prize and year, for work done during the previous year (this has also been changed)), but one has to draw the line somewhere.


COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG ARE PERMANENTLY CLOSED. You can join the discussion on Patreon.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.