In an ideal world, science would be conducted for the sole purpose of making discoveries that would answer questions, satiate curiosity, or improve lives. However, human nature can be notoriously fickle and self-serving, and the field of science is not immune to this tendency. As with any profession, it is easy to be swayed by the lure of prestige, recognition, fame, and glory. In fact, during a lecture for a research course I was in my sophomore year, my biology professor described the end goal of research as getting published, and he didn’t shy away from mentioning that scientists often seek to produce significant and interesting results from their work, in hopes of “making their mark” in the realm of science. The quest for recognition is a reality.
Thus, it would be expected that exclusive and prestigious awards, such as as the esteemed Nobel Prize, would further drive this pursuit of individual glory. After all, who wouldn’t want to be known internationally and establish their name in history? As Casadevall and Fang discuss in their article, there are benefits to having such an award because it “[stimulates] public interest in science and [provides] an opportunity to celebrate human achievement.” Nevertheless, although the award does a great job of promoting science to the public, Casadevall and Fang note that many deserving individuals who have made significant contributions are passed over for the award, seeing as it is only given to individuals who have “‘made the most important discovery’ in the fields of physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine.” Because of this criteria, the selection of its recipient tends to be marked by subjectivity. How does one even rank which contributions are important to humanity when so much scientific research is being conducted around the world? In making that decision, the committee inevitably gives an answer to that question, making a statement that can often be political. This has profound impacts on the direction of future research and also how funding is distributed. And as evidence shows, the people deciding who receives the Nobel Prize are capable of making mistakes.
Ultimately, as Casadevall and Fang mention, science is about collaboration and discovery. The distribution of individual awards and prizes gives the false perception that science is “a series of contributions by brilliant individuals rather than by the interactive and interdependent scientific community that exists in reality.” In today’s day and age, working with others is extremely important. So much information exists, and it is not possible to be an expert in everything. Researchers must consult others who specialize in other areas to fill in gaps. Interdisciplinary collaboration is also becoming increasingly important in answering certain questions. Besides, research isn’t always glamorous. There is a lot of work that occurs behind-the-scenes (synthesizing previous information, collecting data, performing analyses, etc.) that can be time-consuming and monotonous, and it necessitates a team of people working together. Science requires a lot of persistence and perseverance, and there is often no immediate reward for all the labor. I think the Nobel Prize deserves to exists, and the issue is too complex to simply get rid of it altogether. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that the “super-scientist” image proliferated by the Nobel Prize is not an accurate depiction of what doing science is like for the majority of men and women working in labs around the world. It’s a team game.