Nobel men: time for a no bull policy?

It has been interesting, watching the Nobel Prizes – specifically in Chemistry and Physics, but also in Medicine – being announced over the last few days. The most thought-provoking thing has been seeing people discuss possibilities on twitter, and their willingness to baldly weigh up the pros and cons of different candidates. Will the committee decide to value some practical advance which has actually lived up to Alfred Nobel’s intent, by making life better in some tangible way for humanity? Will they instead choose to value some more esoteric aspect of knowledge, a fundamental discovery which confirms or challenges the way that we see the world? Nice examples of these two extremes are provided by the contrast between the Physics Nobels from this year and last: the blue LED, which has led to energy-efficient lights, amongst other applications, and the Higgs Boson.

There is a very frank acceptance that the whole business involves a significant amount of conceptual horsetrading, the comparison of apples with oranges, and a willingness to accept that the tastes of the committee members will balance out over time. If not this year, then next, say the pundits.

And yet.

2 of 199 winners of the Physics Nobel have been women.
4 of 169 winners of the Chemistry Nobel have been women.
11 of 207 winners of the Medicine Nobel have been women.

Science, we have a problem.

Perhaps this is purely historical. Perhaps we can look to Max Planck’s optimistic quote about old ideas dying out with the previous generation. Surely it is getting better?

Is is 50 years since a woman was last awarded the Physics Nobel. The last woman to win the Chemistry Prize was Ada E. Yonath, in 2009; before her, the last woman was Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, in 1964.

It is not getting any better. Not one bit.

I am not going to engage with any nonsense about merit. What I want to reflect on here is how happy we are as scientists to be pragmatic about diversity when it comes to the need to balance experiment and theory, or applied and fundamental work. Apples and oranges: we get that these kinds of choices require some hard decisions.

What certainly can be conceded is that the gender ratios evident amongst practising scientists would not themselves mandate that 50% of prize winners be women. However, given that those gender ratios are also not reflected in the gender balance of winners, I think that might be a red herring.

What we should be thinking about, is what prizes are given for, after all. The discussion about apples and oranges often comes down to demanding equal exposure for different kinds of science. This may explain why the only people to decline the Nobel have been awarded it in the categories of Peace or Literature, most notably Jean-Paul Sartre for the latter.

A few extremists (ok, so far as I know, just me, though I would guess there are others) have suggested that accepting the Nobel Prize is no longer an ethically acceptable thing for men to do, given the persistent exclusion of women. The fact that it is seen as good for science is the clear counterargument, based on the fact that the prize leads to media exposure and some of the scarce serious journalism on matters of scientific discovery and exploration. However, it might be worth pointing to Sartre’s comment on the matter:

It is not the same thing if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre or if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize winner. A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honorable form.

Is science really so different? Can we think about this, just for a minute?

What prizes actually do is provide evidence of what is important to a community: with the science Nobels, the science community is holding up its stars for all the world to see. Do we really want them all to be men?

I think the answer to that question is a pretty easy no. What is hard, is what to do about it, other than side-eying current winners (which feels ungenerous, so I’m trying not to).

The difficulty lies in the small numbers of people getting the award, more than anything else. Could the number of awardees be increased, and a requirement for gender balance be implemented?

This seems unwieldy, in any specific field of science.

Are there just no women deserving of the Nobel Prize? The answer to that is also no. Slate wrote a rather nice write up of a few of the women who should have a shot, bluntly titled: These Women Should Win a Nobel Prize in Physics.

Is it just that it is really the scientific achievement which is being discussed, which leaves the committee at a loss if there happen to be no significant comtributions made by women? Again, no. (H/T @matthias_lein)

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The choices in any given year seem able to be constrained by those of previous years, to the extent that the balance between types of science – e.g. experimental vs theoretical – remains part of the discussion. And yet, gender is not on the table. Could changing the discussion alone make a difference?

Or could you think about combining these two ideas: aggregating the awards over a 3 year cycle, so that multiple decisions are made in a concerted fashion and gender can be made an explicit part of the discussion?

Don’t worry – I am aware that these matters are not subject to the court of public opinion, and not even the opinions of scientists. The prizes are awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences, who follow the instructions set out in Alfred Nobel’s will.

So what did Alfred Nobel have to say about gender?

It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be Scandinavian or not.

I think we have to hope that the Academy are not taking that wish too literally.

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2 Responses to Nobel men: time for a no bull policy?

  1. Ayala says:

    I don’t pay much attention to the Nobel prices, but it would defeat their purpose to take gender into account,.

  2. Pingback: Helen Clark: running to be UN boss as an accomplished human who is a woman |

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