April 1, 2019
Do We Still Need Nobel Prizes?
The annual Nobel Prizes in Sweden are more sacred than Christmas, drawing out international royalty in the arts and sciences, and attracting an audience of millions to witness an annual event styled in the pomp typically reserved for the naming of a new Pope. The prizes are so important that the king of Sweden last year took an unprecedented step in cancelling the Nobel Prize in literature for 2018.
Why? For the same reason Alfred Nobel founded the awards: public relations.
Inventor and chemist Nobel was famously known as the “merchant of death”, thanks to his arms dealership’s role in “killing more people faster than ever before.” In an effort to restore the Nobel name, Alfred launched the prizes under the proviso that they be for the “benefit of mankind.”
To win the top prize in science, an individual must meet three main criteria as set by Alfred Nobel’s will. First, they must make the “most important” discovery in physics or chemistry. Second, they should be made during the previous year. Finally, and most subjectively, it must benefit all mankind.
It is this last requirement that has drawn much ire in hindsight. The award of the 1944 Nobel Prize in chemistry to Otto Hahn for nuclear fission is one such example; as the world grapples with seemingly unstoppable growth in global nuclear weapon stockpiles, including a North Korean regime, the benefits of Hahn’s so-called gift to mankind are murkier by the year.
In the same vein, the discovery of lobotomy won the 1949 Nobel Prize in physiology, and was not banned until a decade later. In more recent years, certain awards have similarly raised more than a few eyebrows. Corruption charges in 2008 marred the reputation of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine after it was alleged that drug company AstraZeneca influenced the selection of that year’s laureate for its own commercial gain.
Furthermore, the design of the Nobel award is misleading to the way science is actually carried out. Indeed, science is a team sport, and no one ever makes it to Stockholm on their own. Still, the current restriction to three laureates at best distorts the image of science innovation as the achievements of lone geniuses. At worst, it makes science seem the exclusive territory of white American males.
Ultimately, the Nobel Prize has undergone a series of radical changes in the close to one dozen decades since it was first birthed. Despite their lofty ideals, rarely have the awards ever lifted up to their initial objective of ensuring the benefit of mankind.
The Nobel Prize is in sore need of a revision and overhaul, or cancelled altogether.
Without a much-need transparency kick, this is one public relations disaster waiting to happen.