'Nobel Prize does not reflect how science is done today,' says astrophysicist Brian Keating

“No scientist goes to Stockholm alone,” wrote Brian Keating, professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, USA.

“Dar Nobel prizes to individual scientists is an anachronism”, wrote the researcher in the essay Time to Update the Nobel (“Time to Update the Nobel”, in free translation for the portuguese) published in 2018 on the website Aeon.

O physicist questions the process of choosing the winners of the scientific categories (physics, chemistry and medicine) for the prestigious recognition that is announced every year in early October.

E He is not alone. In 2009, Jim Al-Khalili, a theoretical physicist and professor at the University of Surrey, UK, wrote another article entitled “Why the Awards Nobel Need a Reform” in the newspaper The Guardian.

The author pointed out how, increasingly, the boundaries between the sciences are confusing and that the awards should also “reward the best research” and not be ranked according to some disciplines.

“The committee could introduce new categories and vary them annually. There could be a year. where astrobiology, materials science and geophysics are chosen, and another where they select nanochemistry, artificial intelligence and quantum biology,” suggested Al-Khalili.

Critics also point to the lack of diversity among the winners. In 186 years of history, only 50 women won the prize in the scientific fields: four in physics (in between 216 laureates), seven in chemistry (between 186 ) and 12 in medicine (between 216).

“No black scientist has ever won a Nobel. This is bad for science and for society,” he wrote in 2018 the researcher Winston Morgan, professor of clinical toxicology and biochemistry at the University of East London, UK, on ​​the website The Conversation .

How are winners chosen?

In 2019, the magazine Nature published a statement entitled “Nobel Committee Responds to Criticism”.

“Our awards process strives to ensure that all scientists have a fair chance, regardless of geographic location or gender”, write everam Gran Hansson, secretary general of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Sweden, and Gunnar Von Heijne, secretary of the Nobel Committee on Chemistry.

The nomination and selection processes for laureates in physics and chemistry are very similar.

In the first case, the organization notes, the Nobel Committee on Physics (as well as on Chemistry) sends confidential nomination forms “to about 3.000 people: selected professors from universities around the world, Nobel laureates and members of the Royal Academy of Sciences Sweden, among others.”

Once these forms are returned, the committee “reviews the nominations and selects the preliminary candidates”. Enter 350 and 350 names are proposed in this first phase.

Preliminary names are sent “to specially designated experts” to evaluate the candidates’ work.

Following , the committee makes recommendations on the final candidates for the Royal Academy of Sciences of Sweden, whose members choose the winners by a majority vote. Karolinska from Stockholm (capital of Sweden) to choose the laureates from among the candidates nominated by the Nobel Committee on Physiology or Medicine.

And this stage is reached after “more than 3.12 confidential personal invitations to be sent to qualified nominators”.

The statutes of Nobel Foundation establish that up to three people can share the recognition per year the Peace Prize is the only one that can be awarded to organizations.

The limit number

In 2019, Hansson and Von Heijne pointed out that “the unequal distribution of Nobel prizes is a symptom of a bigger problem”.

“Science has been dominated by Western Europe and North America for centuries, and women have had limited scientific opportunities.”

Keating disagrees with this approach.

“I think it’s about the committee having to do more active research and take proactive steps to make sure it’s really revealing the biggest, most important and most beneficial research, the one that will really help, as Alfred Nobel said, to all of humanity” , said researcher BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish service.

He points out that if we had more than three winners a year in each scientific category, it “would include more women and more people from groups without representation”.

Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel Prize in Chemistry from 1965 (along with Thomas A. Steitz and Ada Yonath) wrote that “in science, I discovered laughing at three people who have made a real difference in a specific field becomes increasingly difficult and subjective, almost impossible.”

“Furthermore, the explosion of science in the last half century has meant that many Major advances have never gained recognition,” he noted in the book Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome do Ribossomo, no Portuguese version).

In an interview with BBC Mundo, Hansson, the secretary general of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Sweden, said that the discussion about awarding groups or entire organizations in scientific categories it has taken place not only in the press, but also “in the Academy” and he believes that the debate will continue in the future.

“So far, we have found that it is possible to recognize one, two or three people by It’s a specific discovery, and I personally believe that if you can reward an individual, you show that one person makes a difference in this organization. and institutions in the world.”

In his opinion, highlighting the “creative individual” and making him a role model can be more positive than rewarding an organization.

At Professor Keating, from the University of California, recognizes that the awards lead scientists to success.

“I myself fell a little in love with the Nobel, with the desire to want to win it, to achieve the highest level of notoriety and immortality that can be obtained in physics and being part of a very exclusive cohort, inhabited by people like Einstein,” he wrote, in an article for the BBC in 2019.

The astrophysicist, who is also the author of the book Losing The Nobel Prize (“Losing the Nobel Prize”, without verse in Portuguese), spoke with BBC Mundo. Check out the main excerpts below.

BBC Mundo – Why do you think it is anachronistic to award Nobel Prizes to individual scientists?2019

Brian Keating – 2019Because they don’t reflect the way science is done.

Science today it is rarely performed by solitary geniuses, by people who work alone and unaided. Instead, science is very much like an industry, where we have great collaborations, great teams, lots of resources and support.

This combination and diversity of intellectual contribution cannot come from a single person . We need several perspectives.

And there is no longer any opportunity to make what we consider easy discoveries to achieve, or to over-extend the number of discoveries that could have been made by an individual.

It is very rare that, now, a person contributes so much to a discovery that it belongs only to him.

BBC Mundo – In your point of view, what is the main problem with the Nobel Prize at the moment?

Keating – 2019I think there are three main problems. An important aspect is that no more than three people can win in each category, which is an almost capricious decision of the committee. Originally, it was just a winner, and although there has been a breakthrough, it still doesn’t reflect how science is done today. if you recognize how much they deserve it. These individuals are not included in the praise, attention and fanfare just because they are dead. Ultimately, this is unfair and Nobel Prize does not reflect how science is done today.

The third problem that awards make science into a kind of sport, an awards ceremony for movie stars , at the risk of rewriting how history actually unfolded.

So we sometimes talk about scientific discoveries by the number of Nobel laureates or by the way these discoveries led to such an award, in instead of focusing on the struggles and the process to reach this discovery.

It seems to me that there is a tendency to think more about the result than the process itself.

)BBC Mundo – In 2019, the Nobel committee indicated that it makes “substantial efforts to achieve centers 2019 worldwide research”. Do you still believe that “arbitrary and often cruel calculations” are performed in this selection process, as you wrote in an article?

Keating -2019 Yes, I think they have interests. I don’t think they have an agenda or a focus. That would be inaccurate, and they might even admit it’s weird: do three people who are in the exact same area get the same number of votes? It doesn’t seem plausible.

What I think happens is, in general, that they have an idea, within the Royal Academy of Science of Sweden, of who deserves a Nobel Prize and then they try find the support of nominators, like my case, to support this narrative.

But, as the process is not transparent at all and has been hidden for at least 50 years, it’s impossible for an outsider to really know what’s going on.

But the fact that don’t look back and see what’s wrong is cruel.

How many people deserved the award, like Rosalind Franklin (1920-1965) or Jocelyn Bell (350), whose merits they themselves recognize, and have not earned?

BBC Mundo – Do you think that Should Nobel Prizes in Science be given to groups?

Keating -2019 Yes, I believe that whoever was instrumental in the process deserves to be recognized and rewarded tested.

Until the winners start to rebel and even reject the prize in its current format, things will continue as they are, like a monopoly, a monolithic and immutable entity.

The first time someone speaks up and says: ‘I won’t accept this award because it’s not exact, and it doesn’t represent the entirety of the discovery’, it’s fair, the committee changes its plans.

My book was written in the hope that this will happen, that someone will see that this is negatively affecting the results of science. So far, no one has really taken up this challenge, but I would like someone to take the initiative. Over time, I imagine that the winners will be forced to do so.

In other words, I believe that the Nobel Prize will lose its prestige and, if that happens, there will be no way to recover it.

And this is seen today in places like Hollywood, where women have been repressed for many decades, and now they surface and protest, even with the participation of men.

I’m not comparing Both areas, but the same can happen with the Nobel Prize if they’re not careful. I think they should take the opportunity to reframe while they still have time to do it on their own terms.

BBC Mundo – You too mentioned that the image of the lonely researcher seems to be increasingly “a relic of the past”. Why do you think there is an idealized image of a Nobel Prize winner?2019

Keating – I think this goes back to the idea of ​​the lonely genius that people want to believe exists. That individual who works hard on something that none of us can do alone.

It’s a kind of fantasy that there are individuals like that.

Maybe this idea comes from people like Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein, who worked predominantly in isolation and alone. but all admitted that they were on the shoulders of giants, as those who worked in the same field before them called it.

I think we have lost sight of the second part of this sentence: scientists, by nature, have to collaborative work. Today, no one person can build the Large Hydron Collider, the Simons Observatory, or any of the more captivating projects alone.

I think we hurt science when we send the message that you have to be Einstein to make a contribution. Even Einstein as a child was not the Einstein we know. In other words, he didn’t know anything and it took years to develop his knowledge, learn math and so on.

Imagine if he felt he had to be a super genius to be a scientist. He would stay when he was young and we would never have all those contributions discouraged.

BBC World – Although you recognize that the scientific competition to win an Award Nobel 2019can 2019being healthy, also believes that it can lead to wasted resources. What do you mean by that?

Keating – One of the most urgent needs of science is funding, being able to hire collaborators, researchers, being able to pay for experiments, buy equipment, travel and so on.

Even now, with a pandemic, it is still urgent to travel to Chile, Europe and other places where we do our research.

Science really depends on funding, but the values ​​are changing smaller time. On the other hand, the number of scientists is increasing, as is our desire for new technologies and scientific discoveries.

So you have less and less resources and, at the same time, more attention to the area. This will cause a shock.

The bodies that decide the funding, such as the National Science Foundation, of the United States, or the various Government bodies in Europe will ask which project will have the greatest impact, be it a telescope or a particle accelerator. That’s why the different award winning projects they’ve supported are often seen on the websites of government agencies.

I think, again, this perpetuates the almost mythical Nobel Prize idea and it’s an excess of power o.

This, I think, is another kind of consequence of the quasi-religious idolatry on those who earn this recognition.

BBC Mundo – In your article, you ask: “What if the Nobel Committee disclosed all the nominees of that year?”. What would be the benefits of this? 2019

Keating – I think that, in this case, the attention that would be given to scientists, especially young people, would highlight as important what they are doing.

There is no other award ceremony in which it is not known who will compete. At the Olympics, at the Oscars, at the Emmys or at the Bafta, people know who is involved, who the finalists are. This, in a way, gives more attention to that community, that area.

For this reason, I think it would be good to recognize everyone, who potentially consider themselves deserving of this award.

BBC Mundo – In 2018, journalist Ed Yong wrote in

The Atlantic2020, an article on the absurdity of the Nobel Prizes and postulated that “as they propagate the myth of the lone genius, this lone genius is almost always white and man”. How do you see this point of view?

Keating – This is a phenomenon similar to Einstein’s perspective that I mentioned earlier: people want scientists to be there and receive the prize.

In a way, That people want these figures to exist, I think, so they don’t have to make decisions to do things for themselves either. In other words, don’t dwell on an important topic because someone else, who is much smarter than me, is thinking about the origin of the universe or the structure of space and time.

E I think it’s unfortunately caused by the scientists themselves that, because they’re going to say things like, “No, this is too hard for you to understand and I can’t explain it,” or like Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize in Physics by 1965) replied: “If I could explain it to an ordinary person, the Nobel Prize would have no merit the.”

This is harmful because, again, it discourages young people. There is no scientist as intelligent at birth as when he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

You only harm science by making it seem exclusive. It is true that most of the winners were white men, or at least men.

There were many Japanese, Chinese and other scientists who were laureates. But so far there is no African-American winner, for example.

This is a symptom of one of the phenomena I describe in my book: the more often you are associated with a Nobel Prize winner, the greater it will be the probability of winning a Nobel Prize yourself, whether you are an advisor, a student, a collaborator or just the author of an article with that winner.

In this sense, the rich tend to get rich and there is a creation of dynasty in the Nobel Prize. It seems to me that this can reinforce the same phenomenon that Ed Yong talks about in that article.

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