Today, the Nobel Prize represents the crown of recognition that the world's best scientists might hope to receive in the twilight of a long and productive career. But when Alfred Nobel wrote his famous will in 1895, his intention was more radical, more daring than this. Nobel specified that the prizes should be awarded annually to those "who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." The prizes were created to be contemporary. The money, the recognition and the flow of third-party support that follows would go to researchers in the prime of their creativity, at the time in their careers that they needed it most, and could put it to best use.
This year's prizes, as in the past, were awarded for work that was performed decades ago. Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak discovered telomerase in 1984. Charles Kao's work on fiber optics goes back to 1966, while Willard Boyle and George Smith invented photodiodes in 1969. The work on ribosomes that won Chemistry prizes for Ada Yonath, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz was done in the 1970s.
This is hardly a new phenomenon. Albert Einstein had to wait until 1921 to receive a Nobel Prize for work that he had done in 1905. Today we recognize the Theory of Relativity as Einstein's crowning achievement; but in 1921 relativity (also from 1905) was still too radical and controversial for the Nobel Committee to be sure of its correctness, so they awarded him the prize based on his explanation of the Photoelectric Effect. The Committee emphasized, as if for the record, that they had made their judgment "independently of such value as may be ultimately attached to his theories of relativity and gravity, if these are confirmed..."
This is the heart of the problem: It
is not always obvious when a scientific discovery is made whether it
is destined to launch a new paradigm, or whether it will turn out to
be a flash in the pan, a blind alley, or even an error in laboratory
procedure. There is no way to be certain which of last year's
discoveries will prove to be of historic importance.
Evidently, the Nobel Prize Committee
feels they can't afford to make a mistake. They have a weighty
reputation to protect, and they have taken the conservative path of
preserving their prestige by waiting until a discovery passes the
test of history, rewarding achievements from the past. Prizes are
not awarded posthumously, so they focus on discoveries from 20 to 40
years in the past, but not longer than this. Of this year's
honorees, three still have active research programs, three have
become administrators of substantial labs, and three others are
retired. At 48, Greider is the youngest of this year's
recipients by a full decade, while Boyle is the oldest at 85.
It's a radical idea to entertain,
but perhaps Alfred Nobel knew what he was doing when he specified
that the prizes be contemporaneous. Choosing the most promising
current research projects can feel like handicapping horses, but this
is all the more reason it should be done, and done thoughtfully and
creatively by a prestigious committee of the world's most
visionary scientists. The Nobel Committee could do more for the
world of science by giving a boost to young geniuses, even if,
inevitably, their judgment turned out to be off the mark much of the
In Nobel's absence, the niche for
rewarding young and promising researchers has been taken up by the
MacArthur "Genius" Awards. But MacArthur, too, has a lot
of prestige on the line, and the ages of MacArthur fellows have been
creeping up over the years. Twenty-four fellows were announced last
week, with an average age of 46.
Science is a messy business, and always
has been. Einstein was fond of saying, "If we knew what we
were doing, it would not be called research." And, of course,
the pace of scientific change has only accelerated in recent decades.
Judgment about the ultimate value of any particular discovery is
speculative at best. But as we speculate, let us err on the side of
radical new visions. The evaluation committees at NSF and the
program officers at private foundation are already heavily weighted
toward mature, established scientific protocols. Even the
gatekeepers at scientific journals are far more likely to accept for
publication errors that fit well with the established canon, and to
balk at allowing new and creative hypotheses into print. Not only
the research funds, but even the content of the dialog itself is
regulated by those with a powerful interest in the status quo.
Conservatism has never served the cause
of scientific discovery. The Nobel Committee could be leading the
way toward handicapping tomorrow's heroes, rather than
retreating safely to recognition of past accomplishments. Let's
see the Nobel Committee make some mistakes!