There are assuredly good things about the prizes. Scientific discoveries should be recognized for the vital part they play in the human enterprise. The Nobel Prize website is an educational treasure trove, full of rich historical details that are largely missing from published papers. And it is churlish to be overly cynical about any event that, year after year, offers science the same kind of whetted anticipation that’s usually reserved for Oscar or Emmy nominees. But the fact that the scientific Nobels have drawn controversy since their very inception hints at deep-rooted problems.
The very first prize in medicine was awarded to Emil von Behring in 1901 for the discovery of antitoxins, but not to his close collaborator Shibasaburo Kitasato. The 1952 medicine and physiology prize went to Selman Waksman for the discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin, and ignored Waksman’s graduate student Albert Schatz, who actually found the chemical. The chemistry prize in 2008 went to three researchers for discovering green fluorescent protein (GFP)—a molecule that other scientists commonly use to visualize the goings-on within our cells. Douglas Prasher, the man who first cloned the gene for GFP, was not among them.
In some cases, people have protested their own omission. In 2003, one Ray Damadian took out a series of full-page ads in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times to protest that he had been wrongfully denied a Nobel Prize in Medicine for his role in inventing magnetic resonance imaging. The Nobel committee only recognized Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield for that feat—an omission that Damadian billed as a “shameful wrong that must be righted.” “To wake up on Monday morning and see that I had been written out of history is an agony I cannot live with,” he told the Times.
The wider problem, beyond who should have received the prize and who should not, is that the Nobels reward individuals—three at most, for each of the scientific prizes, in any given year. And modern science, as Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus write in Stat, is “the teamiest of team sports.” Yes, researchers sometimes make solo breakthroughs, but that’s increasingly rare. Even within a single research group, a platoon of postdocs, students, and technicians will typically be involved in a discovery that gets hitched to a single investigator’s name. And more often than not, many groups collaborate on a single project. The paper in which the LIGO team announced their discovery has an author list that runs to three pages. Another recent paper, which precisely estimated the mass of the elusive Higgs boson, has 5,154 authors.
Defenders of the prize note that the Nobel committee is bound to the conditions laid out in Alfred Nobel’s will—the document that established the awards. But the will calls for the recognition of “the person”—singular—who has made the important discovery in their respective field “during the preceding year.” The Nobel committee, by contrast, recognizes up to three people, for work that could have been done decades prior. If they are already bending the original rules, why not go further? As the editors of Scientific American suggested in 2012, why not award the scientific prizes to teams and organizations, just like the Peace Prize can be?