Every October, a few hundred scientists will lose sleep, hoping to get a telephone call from the Swedish Academy, announcing they have reached the pinnacle of scientific achievement: the Nobel Prize. Does this coveted prize benefit society and encourage innovation or does it create tension in the scientific community by only crediting at most three recipients?
By Clare Fiala and Eleftherios P. Diamandis
In their commentary piece published in the journal Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine, authors Clare Fiala and Eleftherios P. Diamandis made the case that it is time to abandon the Nobel Prize in favor of alternative recognitions which encompass the collaborative nature of modern science.
Is the Nobel Prize a major influential factor in scientific progress? The authors believe it is not. Nobel laureates are recognized for work done 10, 20 or even 30 years ago, when the investigator(s) did not know their research would have a Nobel Prize worthy impact. Consequently, the work would have been done anyway.
Winning a Nobel Prize is not the same as receiving any other award, and the sole beneficiary is the winner. Nobel laureates become instant celebrities; universally perceived as extremely smart and extraordinarily creative. They are treated with the utmost respect and offered positions on prestigious boards in industry and government. They also secure a full-page obituary in both Nature and Science magazines.
Sailing in the wrong direction
While many Nobel laureates use their prestige to influence science policy and other high-level activities, it is questionable how big this impact really is. On numerous occasions, Nobel laureates have sailed in the wrong direction, by undertaking work in fields outside their Nobel-winning specialty they know little about. This hurts scientific progress as their fame makes their (incorrect) conclusions harder to discredit and encourages others to investigate dead end fields.
Vitamin C was said to cure cancer
Linus Pauling, winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954, began proclaiming the cancer-curing benefits of mega doses of vitamin C near the end of his career. Not only did this erroneous conclusion not do patients any good, years were wasted discrediting this theory. The authors write the Nobel Prize inflates laureates’ perception of their scientific prowess, leading to the damaging belief that their engagement in any project will lead to success, regardless of its relation to their prize winning contribution.
The Nobel rewards discoveries with a major impact on society, such as a new therapy, diagnostic procedure, methodology etc. However the reality is all these discoveries were going to be made anyway, probably with a one to ten year delay. Scientists are obsessed by being the first to discover something, but in most cases their discoveries, or improved versions, are destined to also be made by others.
Moreover, discoveries are frequently made simultaneously in several laboratories. One wonders how important it is for a new technology to be discovered 1, 2 or 10 years earlier. Humans lived without smart phones for centuries. Could they have afforded living without cellphones for a few more years?
Who are the heroes of CRISPR?
The author’s commentary was inspired by the current discussion about the gene editing CRISPR technology which was up for a Nobel Prize last year, but missed out and will have to wait till October 2018 or later. One highly influential scientist published a perspective in 2016 describing “the heroes of CRISPR”. This was taken by many as a preemptive strike, aiming to influence the Nobel committee since one of the co-discoverers comes from his institution. In what appeared to be a response, another co-discoverer, wrote a book with her own version of the events. Would the other four or five “heroes” write their own versions too?
Squabbling not in line with scientific ethos
This Nobel-prompted squabbling is not in line with scientific ethos, which is supposed to promote collegiality and collaboration. The authors write the scientists involved should show humility and generosity instead.
Who will eventually win the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the CRISPR technology or for other breakthroughs? It doesn’t really matter. Those who co-discovered the system should be proud of being members of the team. In their Editorial, Fiala and Diamandis suggest to the co-discoverers, and all other Nobel-worthy discoverers, they should not argue so much on who did what but humbly acknowledge the contributions of others who have helped science progress.
The authors conclude that it is probably better to abandon this highly prestigious award in favor of an alternative reward system which promotes collegiality, collaboration and humbleness.
Read the original article here