The new Nobel: celebrating science events, their teams, and the history of discovery


“Please stop,” she yells, “I’m bored.” Again and again, until the speaker relents and gives up the lectern. Time management at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony.

“I won’t have anything to do with the Nobel Prize… it’s a pain in the… (LAUGHS). I don’t like honors. I appreciate it [my work] for the work that I did, and for people who appreciate it, and I know there’s a lot of physicists who use my work, I don’t need anything else, I don’t think there’s any sense to anything else. I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize — I’ve already got the prize….
 The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it [my work] — those are the real things, the honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors, it bothers me, honors bother, honors is epaulettes, honors is uniforms. My papa brought me up this way. I can’t stand it, it hurts me” (Feynman et al. 2005).

PLEASE NOTE: This is a draft of a bit of the Open Scientist Handbook. There are references/links to other parts of this work-in-progress that do not link here in this blog. Sorry. But you can also see what the Handbook will be offering soon.

In their article, “Is the Nobel Prize Good for Science?,” Arturo Casedevall and Ferric Fang review the numerous controversies linked to Nobel Prize attribution. Their conclusions are here:

“In this regard, the Nobel Prize epitomizes the winner-takes-all economics of credit allocation and distorts the history of science by personalizing discoveries that are truly made by groups of individuals. The limitation of the prize to only 3 individuals at a time when most scientific discovery is the result of collaborative and cooperative research is arguably the major cause of Nobel Prize controversies . . . Changing the Nobel Prize to more fairly allocate credit would reduce the potential for controversy and directly benefit the scientific enterprise by promoting the cooperation and collaboration of scientists within a field to reduce the negative consequences of competition between individual scientists” (Casadevall and Fang, 2013).

The whole team contributed. Who gets the prize?

An uncommon commons populated by occasional giant ideas

As we explored above in The Work of Culture, in open science, scientists move regularly between the complex, emergent problematics of their object of study, the complicated process (in research and writing) required to extract knowledge from this, and the practices of open sharing. This means that the academy commons contains a whole lot of “uncommon” artifacts, pulled with great effort from the edge of knowing.

Scientists are also uncommon, made so by the demands of their profession. While their quotidian lifestyle is mainly long hours of very hard work, they have occasional days of unusual significance: the days when the months of research pay off with new knowledge. On these special days, all the work of their team and the entire history of their domain is rewarded with a new insight, pulled from indifferent data and mountains of observation. Scientists and their teams push back against the envelope of unknowns that surrounds our understanding of the universe until these unknowns surrender new understanding. In this way, scientists and their teams create the events (Badiou and Tarby 2013) that spark giant ideas.

Fund new work based on giant ideas

The idea gets the prize

A giant idea, born from a moment of new knowing, perhaps in conversation, or in contemplation after conversation, or as suddenly emergent from the data, is the prize that science needs to celebrate; not the person who announces this, since the idea had been incubated by many within the larger commons. Celebrating the scientist here is like celebrating an obstetrician for having the baby, instead of for assisting in the delivery (“Great work, Doctor! Have you decided on a name for it yet?”). The baby, a giant new idea, birthed with some effort, might confirm and extend present knowledge with new information, or be the null result that corrects a widely held false scientific “fact,” or be an insight into a new theoretical space, hitherto unspoken.

Here, the collective “mother” could be the team, the room (See below), the adjacent now, a measure of luck, and the domain’s recent history. Yes, the scientist(s) here at the moment get to write up the news, but it’s really the idea, this new thing, that needs to be applauded. And it is also time to give mom her due regard when celebrating the child.

The room is smarter than any one person. Who gets the prize when a new idea is born here? PHOTO: Josh Hallett on Flickr.

“Unmooring the prize from Alfred’s ‘the person’ bonds would happen if the physics prize were awarded to groups. This would reduce the pressure on scientists to stake their claims at the expense of others; it would offer a shortcut up the ladder of authority, a ladder some underrepresented, and thus less powerful, groups such as women and other minorities feel has already been pulled up out of reach” (Keating 2018).

Science wins the award

David Weinberger (2011) noted that “The smartest person in the room is the room itself.” All the conversations in this room reflect the genius of the room, not simply that of individual occupants. Open science rewards these giant ideas by sharing them instantly, globally, and with appreciation for their value and work it took to create the event that spawned them. Open science works to spread recognition across the science endeavor, being acutely aware of accumulated advantages for some and lifetimes of research done in obscurity for others. The latter deserve particular attention. Science at its best is not a personal heroic quest, but open, collaborative labor.

“The Nobel Prize fits with the narcissistic vision of science peopled by heroes, many of whom are very self-centred (but who of course can turn into nice and ethical people once they have succeeded). Science requires many different skills, and it is regrettable that recognition often goes to the storytellers or the dominant males of the community. By taking into account the tacit dimension, we could also better highlight the other key roles and skills — experimenter, tool constructor, organizer of databases — that hugely contribute to the progress of science” (Lemaitre 2015).

There are a lot of people pointing at several issues around the Nobel Prize and its method of selection; you can DuckDuckGo “Is the Nobel Prize obsolete” to get a list of articles with critiques and recommendations. The Handbook adds this topic here mainly to point out how science organizations can express their appreciation for great work by focusing on the science, not the scientists.

Devang Mehta puts it this way: “Here’s an even better idea: award the Nobel Prizes not to researchers but for discoveries. Imagine that today’s Nobel in physics was awarded for the discovery of gravitational waves, with no list of awardees, instead of awarding it to just three scientists out of hundreds. What of the prize money? Donate it to an international science fund to promote further research in each year’s prize-winning field of research. A science-oriented Nobel (rather than a scientist-oriented one) would both educate the public in the most important scientific developments and in turn stimulate new scientific progress by using the prize money to fund the next generation of researchers” (Mehta 2017; Accessed September 12, 2020).

Science prizes should attract all scientists everywhere to do their best work anywhere in the world

The idea of giving out prizes is not itself obsolete; yet all award practices need to be refactored occasionally to capture the heart of the process of doing science, as this expands and changes in the coming decades. And, if it’s time to refactor the Nobel Prize, what does that suggest for the prizes your learned society hands out? Adding an ecosystem of badges (to show off skills and accomplishments) to the recognition landscape helps to replace prizes as a central feature of open science. Since prizes celebrate brilliant work, and as celebrations as a whole add positive affect to your culture, let the prizes continue. But give them some new thought. What is your idea for Nobel 2.0?

References

Badiou, Alain, and Fabien Tarby. Philosophy and the Event. Translated by Louise Burchill. Cambridge: Polity, 2013.

Casadevall, Arturo, and Ferric C Fang. “Is the Nobel Prize Good for Science?” The FASEB Journal 27, no. 12 (2013): 4682–4690.

Feynman, R.P., J. Robbins, H. Sturman, and A. Löhnberg,. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Nieuw Amsterdam, 2005.

Keating, Brian. Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Honor. WW Norton & Company, 2018.

Lemaitre, Bruno. An Essay on Science and Narcissism: How Do High-Ego Personalities Drive Research in Life Sciences? Chicago: Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, 2015.

Weinberger, David. Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room. Basic Books, 2011.

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