Are the Nobels good for science?

September 16, 1997|By Daniel S. Greenberg

WASHINGTON -- October brings the Nobel prizes, and with these most celebrated awards come real but rarely asked questions about whether the prizes merit the hyped-up awe they annually receive from a gullible press.

Abolition of the Nobels might actually be a blessing, both for science and public appreciation of science. But that's not going to happen. The Nobels and the surrounding ceremonials bring ** wondrously favorable international attention to their Swedish homeland, which is not about to surrender its annual autumnal glory and royal rites of presentation.

But the rest of the world might at least contemplate these rituals with a touch of skepticism concerning their certification of a handful of individuals for world-leading excellence in a limited number of scientific and scholarly disciplines. And especially so in an era of big-team, multi-laboratory research involving dozens and even hundreds of researchers and technicians in collaborative efforts.

Each year's awards are invariably followed by bitter accusations of injustice, neglected merit and devious politics, as well as psyches blighted by a sense of grievance and self-perceived loss of deserved scientific immortality.

Established in 1900 by Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, the Nobel prizes were the first with big money and glory for scientific accomplishment. Long ago, they captured a place on the seasonal journalistic agenda. Worth about $1 million per prize today, they are assured front-page, prime-time treatment, though the awards often come years or decades after the winning research was performed and honored in timely fashion with lesser prizes.

For example, in 1966, a Nobel prize was shared by Peyton Rous for the discovery of tumor viruses -- in 1911. The belated recognition may have had something to do with the prohibition on posthumous Nobels. You got to get it while you're alive, and Rous was 87.

The original Nobel prizes are confined to a few areas of science and other intellectual endeavors -- physics, chemistry, medicine or physiology, literature and the nebulous field of ''peace.'' The list of ineligible disciplines thus includes mathematics, astronomy, the earth and agricultural sciences and many more. Psychology and all other branches of the social sciences are excluded, except for economics.

Backlog of superstars

The economics award was established in 1969, and because of the non-posthumous policy, almost always goes to the far side of the age spectrum to clean up the big backlog of superstars from bygone times. Physicists and biochemists, on the other hand, can win it young, even under age 40.

No matter what the field, the emphasis is on basic research, thus excluding engineering and its many offshoots in aeronautics, computers, robotics and so forth. The down-scale position of engineering versus science in the academic pecking order is strongly reinforced by the prestige of the Nobels. In self-defense, engineering created its own big prize, the biennial Draper Award, established in 1989, and now worth $450,000. But rarely does the Draper prize get into the papers, and never on prime-time TV.

The science establishment regularly exploits the Nobels in its pleas for federal money, arguing that science underpins industrial power and Nobels are the measure of scientific prowess. Thus, in 1979, when, as today, the United States was the runaway winner in postwar Nobel awards, the director of the National Science Foundation issued a lugubrious forecast: ''I think the Russians are going to start taking off,'' he said, ''because they're pouring immense amounts of money into research. I just don't think we can go on dominating these Nobel prizes the way we have.''

Nonetheless, we did, right up to and past the collapse of the Soviet Union, which collected very few Nobel Prizes on its path to oblivion.

There is no doubt that many of the great pioneers of science, past and present, have been appropriately honored with the Nobel Prize. But the list of Nobel turkeys is not inconsequential as a measure of the quality of selection.

Perhaps the most embarrassing Nobel of modern times was awarded to Antonio Moniz, a Portuguese physician, whose contribution to the advancement of knowledge was a prefrontal lobotomy, of which he performed thousands, employing an instrument resembling an ice pick, inserted into the brain through the eye socket. In 1949, he was honored as a pioneer of psychosurgery with a share of the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. Today, the procedure evokes revulsion and is banished from civilized medicine.

Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.

Pub Date: 9/16/97

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