Should the Nobel Prize be abolished? Let's think about it.
The presumed merit of this most revered honor for intellectual achievement is that by recognizing and rewarding excellence - currently at the rate of $162,320 per prize, from Alfred Nobel's legacy - excellence is encouraged. There's obviously something to that, since the prospect of glory and wealth do tend to concentrate the mind.
But there's another side to the Nobel sweepstakes that raises serious questions about the 77-year-old institution. Shouts are heard about this in the literary community, where the annual award is often greeted by rancor, disbelief and "never-heard-of-him" comments. The Peace Prize is usually too loaded with politics to command reverence (Henry Kissinger and North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho in 1973). And the prize in economics, first given in 1969, is too new to be evaluated. However, it is already drawing grumbles as the awards committee delicately works its way through contending schools of theory, with an eye on Nobel's non-posthumous rule.
It is in the scientific fields, however, that the mischief is greatest, and for the ironic reason that in sceince, the Nobel halo glows powerfully in and out of the scientific community. That medal-minded enterprise takes recognition by peers very seriously, while the public, generally uncomprehending of the scienticfic work that lead to the prize, stands in a awe of each new properly certified genius. But even a lot of scientists have doubts about the value and effects of the prizes. Though they usually only whisper their concerns, they sometimes go public, as did the British journal Nature a couple of years ago, when it editorially looked askance at the Nobel prizes and inquired, "Isn't it time they were abolished?"
One trouble with the Nobel prizes is that they confer invidious prestige on the few fields of basic research for which they are awarded: physics, chemistry and medicine or physiology - leaving out all the rest of the big world of science. There is no Nobel Prize for mathematics or phychology or any of the other social sciences, apart from economics. Being granted exclusively for basic research, the prizes exclude engineering and most of the medical sciences. The developers of polio vaccine have never received Nobel recognition because their work is considered to be a case of medical engineering that drew upon a Nobel-honored breakthrough in tissue-culture techniques for its success. Newer fields, such as energy, environment and oceanography, do not come into the Nobel preview, nor do important but less fashionable fields such as zoology and botany.
An effect of the Nobel system is to contribute to a scientific pecking order that distorts the values of the scientific community, particularly in regard to its linkage to societal needs. Nobelists and, by extension, their fields of research constitute an elite, which does not go unnoted by bright graduate students who are planning their careers or, usually, by government bureaucrats who are handing out money for research.
Another difficulty is that the prizes almost invariably spawn a great deal of bitterness and cynicism.Though the various Swedish Institutions that select the recipients go about their task with great diligence, it is often impossible to pinpoint the origin of a particular scientific finding. Perhaps it was some years ago, but most research today is not only conducted by teams, but is also intellectually nourished by similar research at other institutions.The Nobel Prize honors the ball carrier while ignoring the indispensible role of the team.
Perhaps the kindest thing to be said about the Nobel Prize is that it is unique in its power for instantly creating personages whose pronouncements on any subject - scientific or otherwise - command worldwide attention. Many Nobelists, apart form a few idiot savants who chanced on gold, are extraordinarily bright and humane, and their automatic access to the public on issues of concern - arms control prominent among them - is a bit of a plus. In this regard, Nobelists constitute a sort of international House of Lords, holding life-time appointments to pontificate freely. For this purpose, the awards may have some value. But otherwise, our Swedish friends could do science and society a service by doing away with this curious institution.