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The problem with the Nobel Prize

A prize for socio-political recognition?

Nobel prize

Most people recognize that the Nobel Peace Prize is political in nature. But few people are aware that the same is true for the Nobel Prize in physics. Politics, economic interests, and scientific research are more intertwined than they have every been – huge funding grants being a prerequisite for scientific research. Having the right connections or the right politics seem to have become just as important criteria as one’s actual scientific merit. The prize has become a tool for promoting the personal careers of certain well-funded, well-connected scientists, rather than the advancement of science, indicating that we are entering the twilight of the scientific age, writes  Martín López Corredoira.

 

Alfred Nobel’s will was to endow “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”. Nobel Prizes were then created with the idea of giving recognition to some of the best developments or discoveries within some areas. In Physics for instance, some of the best researchers during 20th century were awarded with a Nobel Prize for solid and remarkable discoveries. As a result, the Prize got a wonderful reputation worldwide as a sign of quality-guarantee.

These days the Nobel Prize has come to reflect the less remarkable times we live in and has fallen victim to economic and social pressures that mean the Prize is not what it used to be. When it comes to the Nobel Prize in physics, the committee seems to be increasingly awarding speculative hypotheses, rather than concrete discoveries – perhaps because there simply aren’t any discoveries of great note: physics in the 21st century isn’t as exciting as physics in the last century.  But beyond that, we live in a time when political interests often get entangled with science. This is mainly due to the need for grants and other funding to carry out scientific projects, something that wasn’t true to the same degree in the past. This makes science more dependent than ever on economic and political forces, and as a result the major research centers have become strongly connected with the socio-economic interests. We are witnessing the symptoms of a twilight of the scientific age: Individual creativity is condemned to disappear in favor of big corporations of administrators and politicians of science specialized in searching for ways to get money from governments in megaprojects with increasing costs and diminishing returns.

The Nobel Prize has been adapting to our times, getting closer and closer to politics and further and further away from the spirit of scientific discovery.

The Nobel Prize has been adapting to our times, getting closer and closer to politics and further and further away from the spirit of scientific discovery. The politicization of the Peace Prize is remarkable; who can forget the award being given to Barack Obama in 2009, before he even had the chance to demonstrate his merits as a peace-building politician, merits which fell short of many people’s expectations. To a lesser degree, the Nobel Prize of literature is widely recognized as having become politicized too. But when it comes to physics one would not expect as much politics to enter into the award, since physics is relatively more removed from human and social affairs than other areas of inquiry. Despite that, the prizes of last decades show an increasing contamination of politics too.

This year, part of the award in Physics went to scientists connected to the "physical modeling of Earth's climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming". There is nothing extraordinary in re-establishing the connection between the greenhouse effect and the increase of temperature. The physics has been well-known for years, and the numerical simulations involved are simply a second-class intellectual achievement. Nonetheless, the topic of global warming is intimately connected to politics, and this gives one’s research project extra points that go towards winning the Prize.

The Swedish Academy has also awarded in recent decades many prizes that do not recognize actual discoveries, but the speculations of some well-connected scientists.

Sometimes one has the impression that the Nobel Prize committee has failed to draw a distinction between engineering and physics, given how many of its recent awards have erred in that direction (for instance, in the Nobel Prizes of 2009, 2010, 2014, 2018). The application of physics in technologies that  benefit the industry and the economy seem to be confused with discoveries of the fundamental laws of physics.

The Swedish Academy has also awarded in recent decades many prizes that do not recognize actual discoveries, but the speculations of some well-connected scientists. In my own area, cosmology, I was surprised to see the 2011 award being given “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae”, which is an unconfirmed hypothesis.

We must remember that Einstein himself did not receive the Nobel prize in 1921 for his formulations of the special and general theory relativity, but for the photoelectric effect, because, among other things, his theoretical contributions, extraordinary as they were, were considered too speculative at that time, without enough empirical evidence to support them. Not even Hubble received a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the expansion of the Universe, in part due to the fact that astrophysics wasn’t considered as established a field to deserve a Nobel Prize in Physics, - even though his discovery was more significant and more empirically supported than the speculative hypothesis to do with the rate of acceleration of the universe’s expansion.

It increasingly looks like the new mission of the Nobel committee is not awarding solid, incredible discoveries, but promoting some influential and economically powerful teams of scientists. The Nobel Prize, given its prestige, has a powerful  influence on the general public as well as new generations of scientists, which are lead to believe physics is in possession of a model of the universe as empirically supported as the model of what matter around us is made of, when this is highly questionable to say the least. The Nobel committee has the power, with its stamp of approval, to mislead us about what science actually knows and doesn’t know.

It increasingly looks like the new mission of the Nobel committee is not awarding solid, incredible discoveries, but promoting some influential and economically powerful teams of scientists.

In the case of the 2019 Physics Nobel Prize the situation is even more puzzling. Not only was it awarded for an unconfirmed hypotheses in cosmology, but the committee didn’t even specify which hypothesis was being singled out as worthy of an award. It simply said: “for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology”. It seemed like  the committee, in a new twist to the rules of the Nobel award, had decided to give out “lifetime achievement” prizes to further the careers of important researchers rather than to recognise particular discoveries.

Diversity, Inclusion and Equality considerations are also playing an increasingly important role in the distribution of the Prizes due to political pressures, while the merits of the discoveries themselves are decreasing in significance when it comes to the factors to give a prize.

Whatever the rationale is, the conclusion seems to be that economic, social and political pressures play a major role in the assignment of the Nobel Prize in Physics. The Nobel Prize has lost its original character and has become more of a social recognition, rather than a purely scientific award. Something similar to singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” at someone’s birthday. Asocial geniuses without good connections in the market of science, or the “right” politics are no longer good candidates for the Prize.

 

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