Should Nobel Prizes go to teams?

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics has gone to members of the LIGO consortium for the detection of gravitational waves, namely to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish. But the contributions of many hundreds of people were necessary for the success of LIGO and so it can be argued that the restriction to three people is wrong and that future Nobel Prizes should go to teams.

Professor Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, told BBC correspondent Pallab Gosh that: “LIGO’s success was owed to hundreds of researchers. The fact that the Nobel Prize committee refuses to make group awards is causing increasingly frequent problems and giving a misleading impression of how a lot of science is actually done”.

Rees is right, of course, but would changing it be a good thing? It would mean that nearly all future Nobels in physics would go to teams, either simply to a named team or to a list of team members that could amount to hundreds.

I’m not sure this would be a good change. First, a more inclusive list of people wouldn’t overcome the fairness problem. Deciding who to include or exclude on a list of a hundred is no easier than on a list of three, indeed it is harder. There would have to be some threshold of contribution, and the difference in level of contribution between someone who just made the list versus someone who just did not would be much smaller, if the list were 100, than when the list is restricted to three.

So perhaps one could just name the team, without listing team members. But this would remove the element of awarding the prize to named people, and that would, over time, reduce the influence of the science Nobels in wider society. That’s because, like it or not, wider society is very much driven by “human interest” stories. If it were just about naming science teams the wider media would pay less attention.

Already, scientists as scientists get little mention in mainstream media. Whereas it would be unthinkable to discuss a controversial building without naming the architect, or to discuss a Michelin-starred restaurant without mentioning the chef, it is often the norm for science to be reported in purely impersonal terms without naming those involved.

The result is that according to a survey only 4% of Americans can name a living scientist. The one time we can guarantee that the quality mainstream media will both name some leading physicists and state what they have done is when the physics Nobel Prize is announced. It would be a pity to lose that.

Further, would a team such as LIGO, or the CERN teams that discovered the Higgs Boson, really benefit much from the additional award of the Nobel? Such discoveries did receive wide coverage and publicity at the time, and the award of a Nobel some years later would add less. It is the addition of individual names to receive the Prize that makes it a renewed news story, as opposed to one that would get a minor mention.

Yes, the picking out of two or three people for a prize can produce unfair and capricious results and also some randomness (as just one example, had Ronald Drever not died earlier this year he would likely be one of the three newly announced Laureates, with the consequence that perhaps Barry Barish would not be). But still, for all such quirks, I think we’d lose more if the prizes went instead to teams.

5 thoughts on “Should Nobel Prizes go to teams?

  1. Phillip Helbig

    I agree. As I write around this time in various and sundry blog comments, this is a bad idea.

    Yes, three is arbitrary, but one has to draw the line somewhere.

    The main reason is that most people in the group didn’t do outstanding scientific work. Yes, they showed up for work and didn’t goof off, but this applies to most of humanity. I once read that among the crew on a Rolling Stones tour there were 17 cooks. Great, and I’m sure that the food was tasty, but they don’t deserve a Grammy any more than a summer student who calibrated a detector deserves a Nobel Prize.

    If it went to groups, there would be thousands of living prize winners, diminishing the value. It would also disadvantage those who don’t work in groups.

  2. Phil

    Nobel prizes might go to any scientist or science team who are willing to think critically about where the scientific enterprise as a whole is taking humanity.

    The prize seems to assume that fueling the knowledge explosion is a net good, and few scientists or other members of the public seem willing or able to challenge this core assumption.

    It’s entirely possible, and not hard to demonstrate, that the prize may be rewarding very smart hard working people who are helping humanity race ever faster towards the self extinction cliff.

    Wild speculation you say? You demand proof? Ok, fair enough, here it is. All of western civilization (at the least) can now be erased in less than an hour. If that is not reason enough to deeply question where Nobel prizes are leading us, I don’t know what is.

  3. Phil

    Nobel prizes should focus on rewarding those who address the central knowledge based challenge which faces us.

    We want to continue the knowledge explosion because of the substantial benefits it delivers to human culture. But the same knowledge explosion which brings these benefits is taking us in to ever more dangerous territory. How do we harvest the benefits, without committing civilization suicide in the process?

    The heart of the challenge are what can be called “existential scale” powers, that is, powers with the ability to crash civilization. Nuclear weapons are the obvious example. Other emerging powers pose a similar level of risk. As the knowledge explosion continues and accelerates, powers of this scale will emerge at an ever faster pace.

    Existential scale powers fundamentally change the nature of the knowledge explosion because they remove room for error and the ability to learn from our mistakes. Each existential scale power will have to be successfully managed every day forever. Managing most of these powers most of the time won’t be good enough because all it takes is one mistake with one existential scale power one time, and it’s game over.

    If this challenge is not met and conquered, none of the other research being conducted matters because it will all be swept away in a coming collapse of civilization. Read that again, if we don’t figure out how to successfully manage every existential scale power all of the time forever, none of the other research matters.

    The Noble Prize process provides clear evidence that the scientific community as a whole lacks the objectivity and vision to address themselves to this all important bottom line. All of us, scientists and the public, celebrate each new acceleration of the knowledge explosion with little serious reflection upon where the process is inevitably taking us if we don’t wise up.

    The problem is not science, as science is just a tool with no agenda of it’s own. The problem is not scientists, as they are overwhelmingly highly skilled people of good intentions doing the job we hired them to do, and doing it well.

    The problem is our culture’s simplistic, outdated and dangerous “more is better” relationship with knowledge. We need Nobel Prize winners who get this, and who can chart a course to a relationship with knowledge that meets the demands of the times we live in, instead of the 17th century.

  4. Phil

    Coel is right of course that the Nobel Prize has a lot of public credibility. If we were to examine this authority building mechanism more closely we could learn a lot about religion, Coel’s other favorite topic.

    Readers of this blog are likely entirely mystified by how so many religious people cling to the authority of their preferred clerics, even in the face of some truly disgusting scandals. As example, I see the Catholic web is now bubbling with a predictable wave of sanctimonious sermons marking the passing of Hugh Hefner, as if the Catholic child rape scandal never happened.

    This authority worshiping process is only mysterious so long as we chose to see it only in other people. The Nobel Prize awards give scientists the opportunity to see the same process underway in their own community.

    Where is the evidence that the Nobel Prize committee, or the scientists who so earnestly compete for their attention, really have much of any clue about the civilization threatening challenge I outlined in my comments above? If they did see the danger, would they still be handing out awards to whomever can most accelerate the knowledge explosion??

    In spite of what seems to be a glaring inability to grasp and address the central information driven challenge of our times, the Nobel committee and the scientific community are still “worshiped” by secular culture as the trusted highest authorities on the subject of knowledge.

    The point here is that the near blind desire for authority is not a religious problem exclusively, but a human problem. Everyone craves the reassurance of feeling that somebody is in charge and knows what’s going on. And as we can see in both religious culture and science culture, that is rarely the case.

  5. Phil

    Ha! The Nobel committee is working hard to prove me wrong, having just today awarded a prize to ICAN, a group leading efforts to outlaw nuclear weapons. Ok, it’s another group, which will annoy some, but a worthy group and cause for sure. Thumbs up Nobel!

    However, note how the fundamental challenge presented by the knowledge explosion remains unaddressed. If we got rid of all nuclear weapons tomorrow that would provide a much welcome breathing space, but the threat presented by existential scale technologies remains.

    Perhaps the Nobel committee would reward those addressing this larger issue, but they can’t find anyone doing so?


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