Nobel's 'Rule Of Three' - Does Winning Diminish A Scientist's Impact?
This week, the world will witness many of the brightest scientific minds emerge from academic shadows as the Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and medicine or physiology are declared. Established over a century ago by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, these honors symbolize the zenith of scientific accomplishment, applauding pivotal innovations often years in the making.
Central to these discussions is the Nobel's 'rule of three', which can sometimes lead to potential oversights in acknowledging all deserving contributors. However, the spotlight also casts shadows of controversy and disputes surrounding the choices.
Martin Rees, a prominent British cosmologist, physicist, and ex-president of the Royal Society, remarked, “One challenge for the Nobel committees is the increasingly collaborative nature of most scientific research. The image of the lone genius having a eureka moment is long gone, if it ever truly existed. Additionally, discoveries can be made simultaneously by different teams.”
Considering Alfred Nobel's 1895 stipulation that each prize can be awarded to a maximum of three individuals, recognizing collective efforts becomes a conundrum. Rees noted, “It may be a project where several people have done work in parallel, and they single out some and not others. It may be that there’s a team, and it’s not obvious that the ones they’ve singled from the team are the dominant figures.”
An illustrative case is the 2017 Nobel in Physics, awarded for the detection of gravitational waves, “ripples” in space caused by merging black holes distant by billions of light-years. Though the primary papers on this finding included nearly 1,000 authors, the accolade went to only three - Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish, and Kip Thorne.
David Pendlebury, who deduces "Nobel-worthy" scientists by evaluating citation frequency, commented:
It really has become a huge transformation in science that it’s more and more team science. This rule of three does seem to be an impediment if they wanted to recognize a team.- David Pendlebury
However, when asked about the possibility of amending this rule, Peter Brzezinski, secretary of the committee for the Nobel Chemistry Prize, clarified that no changes were being contemplated.
The Nobel committees often spotlight endeavors undertaken many years prior. It's a retrospective stance vital for understanding the importance of certain scientific investigations.
Though the Nobels are restricted to three scientific domains as stipulated in Nobel's will, a 2020 study revealed that just five scientific subdisciplines out of 114 accounted for over half of the awards given between 1995 and 2017. Rees highlighted that the committees’ inclination towards these fields sometimes seems detached from contemporary scientific urgencies.
One such domain experiencing rapid transformation is artificial intelligence (AI). Pioneers like Demis Hassabis and John Jumper, creators of AlphaFold, have already earned significant recognition. Commenting on their contribution, Pendlebury mentioned, “That is, in my experience, just incredible in terms of the speed at which the citations have accrued, so obviously, it’s a huge, important intellectual discovery.” Yet, he opines that expecting a Nobel for AI this year might be overly optimistic due to the committees being “innately conservative.”
The diversity, or lack thereof, of Nobel laureates has also been a point of contention. Although more female scientists have been honored recently, the numbers remain disappointingly low. Pendlebury attributes this scarcity to a “pipeline problem”, referencing that the awards typically focus on works published 20 to 30 years ago when the representation of women in elite scientific roles was notably lesser.
However, some, like Professor Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University, regard this as evidence of an entrenched bias in the scientific community. “There are several women who made Nobel-level contributions to science, contributions for which male colleagues were awarded, but they were not. These examples prove that even when there were qualified women, they were systematically passed over.”
Rees believes a significant part of this issue lies in the Nobel's opaque selection mechanism, which keeps both its shortlist and nominators confidential, withholding documentation on the selection for half a century.
But as Rees aptly surmised, these imperfections are under the microscope mainly due to the unparalleled prestige of the Nobel Prizes compared to other scientific accolades. Looking ahead, the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine will soon be unveiled, succeeded by physics, and then chemistry, with literature and peace prizes closing the week.
Awards like the Nobel Prize and the MacArthur Fellowship are considered significant milestones in a scientist's career. While these recognitions celebrate past achievements, their impact on a scientist's future contributions remains a subject of interest and debate.
Based on recent research led by Dr. John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at Stanford University, winning major scientific awards might not enhance a scientist's productivity as one might expect.
The study published in the Royal Society Open Science journal analyzed publication and citation patterns for scientists who won a Nobel Prize or a MacArthur Fellowship.
Dr. Ioannidis stated:
These awards do not seem to enhance the productivity of the scientists. If anything, it seems to have the opposite effect.- Dr. Ioannidis
Delving into the data, the team selected 72 Nobel laureates and 119 MacArthur fellows from this century, comparing their publication and citation counts three years before and after their recognition. The findings reveal that post-award, Nobel winners had roughly the same number of publications.
However, the citations they received were fewer than before the award. In contrast, MacArthur fellows had a slight uptick in publications, but the citations remained stable. Dr. Ioannidis said, “Publications gave insight into how much new work a scholar was producing, whereas citations quantified the impact that work had in the field.”
Furthermore, when analyzing age-related trends, a notable difference emerged: laureates 42 or older experienced a decline in citations and publication counts post-award, while younger recipients saw an increase in both metrics.
However, measuring the productivity and impact of scientists isn't straightforward. Harriet Zuckerman, a sociologist at Columbia University who has extensively researched Nobel laureates, cautions against reducing productivity to simplistic metrics. She highlighted the challenges in generalizing across various scientific fields, which have distinct standards for publication and citations.
Dr. Zuckerman's own research found that the fame accompanying the Nobel affects laureates significantly more than MacArthur fellows, leading to increased distractions. “They are treated by others, both within their fields and outside science, often as celebrities, as people whose opinions count on everything,” she observed. “It’s very distracting.”
Andrea Ghez, a renowned astrophysicist, further underscores this sentiment by contrasting her experiences of becoming a MacArthur fellow in 2008 and later a Nobel laureate in 2020. According to her, a Nobel Prize brings along a tremendous responsibility of being a globalleader, which transcends traditional metrics like papers or citations.
Another perspective comes from Dashun Wang, a researcher at Northwestern University, who proposes that Nobel laureates might experience a “pivot penalty.” This phenomenon occurs when established researchers decide to explore new avenues, leading to an initial dip in productivity.
While citations and publications are commonly used to gauge scientific productivity, they only provide a partial view. Dr. Ioannidis admits:
There are many other things that matter in the footprint of science and society.- Dr. Ioannidis
Until there's data to encapsulate these broader impacts, Dr. Ioannidis believes in evaluating the effects of awards and encouraging the scientific community to prioritize impactful and rigorous work.
Overall, the influence of major awards on scientific productivity is multifaceted. While some patterns emerge from the data, individual experiences, and broader societal impacts ensure that the narrative remains complex and evolving.
The Nobel Prizes in these fields are meant to honor and applaud pivotal innovations and scientific accomplishments, often representing years of work by the recipients.
How Do The Nobel Committees View Collaborative Scientific Endeavors In Relation To The 'Rule Of Three'?
Collaborative scientific efforts pose challenges for the Nobel committees due to the 'Rule of Three'. As more and more scientific discoveries are made by large teams, it becomes increasingly difficult to select only up to three individuals for recognition.
Yes, one illustrative case is the 2017 Nobel in Physics, awarded for the detection of gravitational waves. The primary research papers on this discovery included nearly 1,000 authors, but the prize was given to just three individuals.
Peter Brzezinski, secretary of the committee for the Nobel Chemistry Prize, has clarified that there are no current plans to change this rule.
While the Nobels are confined to three scientific domains as per Nobel's will, it's been observed that a handful of subdisciplines received a significant portion of the awards over certain periods. This selection sometimes appears detached from contemporary scientific urgencies.
The domain of AI, particularly contributions from pioneers like Demis Hassabis and John Jumper, creators of AlphaFold, has garnered significant recognition. However, expecting a Nobel for AI soon might be optimistic given the traditionally conservative nature of the committees.
The representation of female scientists among Nobel laureates has been notably low. This has sparked debates, with some attributing it to historical representation disparities in science, while others believe it shows biases in the selection process.
The Nobel's selection process keeps both its shortlist of potential laureates and its nominators confidential. Documentation on the selection is withheld for 50 years, adding to the perception of opaqueness.
Recent research suggests that major scientific awards might not necessarily enhance a scientist's productivity. For example, Nobel laureates may have roughly the same number of publications after receiving the award but might experience fewer citations. However, measuring productivity and impact is multifaceted and goes beyond simplistic metrics.
In the landscape of scientific achievements and recognition, the Nobel Prizes stand as a testament to exceptional contributions. However, the intricacies of its selection process, particularly the Nobel's 'rule of three', pose challenges in an era of collaborative science. While this rule seeks to honor pivotal individuals, it often raises questions about its applicability in today's interconnected and team-driven research environment.
As the scientific community continues to evolve, the discussions surrounding the Nobel's 'rule of three' underline the complexities of distinguishing and acknowledging groundbreaking discoveries and the minds behind them.