By Kenneth M. Evans, Ph.D.
Scholar in Science and Technology Policy
Kirstin R.W. Matthews, Ph.D.
Fellow in Science and Technology Policy
Research Associate, Center for Health and Biosciences
In 2018, after decades of omissions, implicit bias and outright misogyny, academia’s biggest prize felt like it finally entered the 21st century. In the days leading up to the Nobel Prize announcement, the Academy (which administers the physics, chemistry and economics prizes) acknowledged the glaring gender imbalance in its prize pool and outlined changes to its awarding procedures meant to build a more inclusive body of nominators and nominees. Then, for the second time in the Nobel’s nearly 120 year history, two women, Donna Strickland (physics) and Frances Arnold (chemistry), were recognized in the same year. Strickland was the first woman to win the physics prize in 55 years.
Unfortunately, the 2019 prizes were a return to the status quo: all nine laureates in the sciences — physics, chemistry and medicine — went to men. Since the inaugural prize in 1901, the total number of female laureates now stands at three in physics, five in chemistry and 12 in medicine, out of 616 total recipients in the sciences, or 3.2% of the prize share (2.7% when fractional counting is taken into account).
Representation at science’s highest ranks matters. Education research demonstrates that young scientists from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, both male and female, are more likely to succeed when they develop an identity as a scientist. A sense of scientist identity is far easier to build with a more diverse population of scientific mentors and national and international leaders. This year’s all-male prize pool is both an ugly reflection of a deeply rooted racial and gender bias in the scientific community, and also of the Nobel’s archaic rule system. It is time to remake the Nobel Prize or leave it behind.
The Nobel statutes are based on an interpretation of Alfred Nobel’s will, a Swedish chemist and industrialist known as the “dynamite king” for his most famous, and profitable, invention. Nobel’s will lays out general rules for conferring annual prizes in physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine, which have “the greatest benefit to humankind,” as well as awards for literature and peace, “to the person who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations.” The will stipulates that “no consideration be given to nationality,” but is otherwise scarce on details.
In order to seek out the discoveries that had the greatest benefit to humankind, each year the Nobel Committee sends out nomination forms to roughly 3,000 subject experts, mostly academics, to build a shortlist of potential nominees. The committee winnows the list and compiles a report from their survey for the prize’s two awarding academies. Each academy — the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for physics, chemistry and economics, and the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm for physiology or medicine — holds a simple majority vote to pick the final winners. It is through this selection process that we have arrived at nearly 97% male science laureates — a laughable illustration of what happens in a “purely meritocratic” reward system.
In an interview last year, Göran Hansson, the secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said that the Academy had made changes to the nomination policies in light of long-standing criticisms about Nobel committee bias toward white, male and western scientists. The instructions in the 3,000 nomination forms now ask participants to consider gender, “geographic diversity” and topic in their nominations. The letter also stresses for the first time that each nominator can include up to three choices. However, there have been no discussions about broadening the pool of individuals sent letters to include more diversity including non-academics, women’s organizations and underrepresented minority serving institutions. Furthermore, while Hansson was forthcoming about the Academy’s attempts at modernizing its procedures, he stressed that the tweaks to Nobel policy were not about equity, but instead made to ensure the prize really does go to the most worthy individual. Hansson also asserts that establishing quotas for women and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups would “devalue” the Nobel Prize and, moreover, implies that it does not align with Nobel’s intent to not judge by nationality. He cites a recent rise in awards to Japanese scientists as proof that the selection process is unbiased. As the primary spokesperson of a Nobel awarding institution, connecting nationality with a particular racial or ethnic group is an unfortunate, and telling, argument.
Even if there were internal changes to nominations, there is no way to tell if the nominator pool did in fact heed the letter’s call to consider gender and geography as the nominations are kept secret for 50 years. This decision was made “to prevent attempts to interfere with the nomination process and to allow researchers to give their honest opinion on colleagues’ work.” However, this allows biases to persist unchecked in the process. A more transparent nomination process would allow the public, including other scientists, to see if the number of women and scientists from underrepresented countries in the award pool are indeed increasing.
Nobel’s will also mentions nothing of keeping the process secretive nor of restricting prizes to individuals. The Nobel Foundation’s decision to limit the awards to three people is entirely arbitrary. Indeed, the Nobel Peace Prize, can, and often is, awarded to groups. Awarding the science prizes to groups could help the awards be more inclusive, especially where research teams sometimes include dozens or even hundreds of deserving individuals. There is also no clear reason for not broadening the “Nobel” name to other fields without existing major awards, as they did in for economics in 1969. While mathematics has the Fields Medal and computer science has the Turing Award, subjects like ecology, atmospheric sciences, geology and agronomy, for example, are not represented by any publicly visible award. Expanding the breadth and number of available prizes would give more opportunities for scientists to be recognized, and help avoid repeating the Nobel’s long history of snubbing worthy individuals — many of them women and graduate students.
Finally, in response to increasing diversity of nominations, Hansson notes that 2018 was the first year the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (which the Nobel committees draw from to vote on nominees) elected more women than men to its ranks. This response deflects away from responding to legitimate critiques of the Nobel award system at large. This year’s all-male cast of laureates is a strong indicator that the Nobel organization’s efforts fell far short.
Each October, the Nobel Prizes are an opportunity to celebrate science as each award is announced. Unfortunately, each year we also note the lack of diversity among the winners. Concrete policy changes are needed to ensure more diversity is reflected in the world’s most visible and prestigious scientific honor. Until it changes, the scientific community owes it to the public to stop upholding the Nobel’s dated and exclusionary prestige, and the myth of lone, male genius it represents.