The Nobel Prize has always represented the highest form of honor for accomplishments in the scientific community. My view of the coveted prize has undergone an interesting evolution as I have transitioned from a career in experimental chemistry to one in the history of chemistry. Three Nobel Prizes try to cover all of science. When the Nobel laureates are revealed each year in October, I can’t help but wonder whether the awards are keeping up with the rapidly developing fields of science.
The Chemical and Biological Sciences
There has been a recent shift in the focus of the chemistry Nobel Prizes toward the biological sciences. The Nobel Prizes given to Emmanuelle Charpentier, Jennifer A. Doudna, Frances H. Arnold, and others for their ground-breaking work in genome editing and enzyme evolution demonstrate a trend toward the medical and biological sciences.
Thinking back to when Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their work deciphering the structure of DNA, a major discrepancy stands out. The Nobel Assembly granted the prize in physiology or medicine despite the DNA structure being primarily a chemical discovery, highlighting the dynamic character of the Nobel Prizes.
Expertise on Committees and Their Impact
We found a robust relationship between the fields of expertise of the Nobel Committee members and the fields of expertise of the laureate in a joint analysis of the Nobel Prizes that I conducted with chemist and historian Guillermo Restrepo. The growing number of life scientists on the committee suggests that there is a conscious effort to shift the focus of award recognition away from chemistry and toward life sciences.
Chemistry vs. the Life Sciences
Analysis of scholarly literature sheds light on the “intellectual territory” divide between the chemistry and biology disciplines. There is little cross-over between chemistry and biochemistry articles published in specialized scientific journals, suggesting that the two fields are conceptually distinct. However, the Nobel Prizes seem to be muddying the waters in this regard.
Scientists and Acknowledgement
Scientists may not care much about being labeled as members of a certain field, but they take honors and recognition very seriously. Three Nobel Prizes try to cover all of science. The inclusion of chemistry and the biological sciences in the Nobel Prize has raised discussions regarding whether or not the prizes are still relevant in light of the changing scientific environment.
The Nobel Prize, created by Alfred Nobel in a bygone period, struggles to keep up with the rapidly developing scientific landscape. There has to be a rethinking of how prizes are given out now that chemistry and the biological sciences are increasingly being recognized together. Considering the interdisciplinary character of modern research, maybe a new Nobel Prize for the biological sciences should be established as science progresses. For the sake of progress, the Nobel Foundation ought to abandon its ingrained practices.
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