The Nobel Prize, and representation in science

The Nobel Prize is without doubt one of the most coveted accolades in academia, evolving from a Swedish philanthropist’s means of honouring those that have benefited humanity with their discoveries to one in every of mainstays of educational achievement, particularly within the sphere of drugs.

Certainly, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medication has graced the laboratories of many Canadian scientists (most famously Frederick Banting for his discovery of insulin, and extra just lately Ralph Steinman for his “discovery of the dendritic cell and its position in adaptive immunity”).

Essentially the most just lately awarded Prize celebrates a elementary sense that we regularly take as a right in our each day lives. Dr. David Julius and Dr. Ardem Patapoutian shared the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medication “for his or her discoveries of receptors for temperature and contact.” Certainly, whereas we had a conceptual thought of how necessary detecting chilly, warmth, contact – and most significantly, ache – was to our survival, the molecular foundation of those senses had been nonetheless a thriller. Julius’ discovery of the TRPV1 gene that’s delicate to capsaicin (the chemical that provides peppers their “spicy” style) and Patapoutian’s discovery of mechanosensitive “Piezo” proteins collectively kicked off a vibrant analysis subject, enormously enhancing our understanding of contact and temperature sensations. Furthermore, it has supplied a baseline for higher understanding of molecular mechanisms behind ache, with the hopes of discovering new remedies for ache and associated situations.

Nevertheless, the awarding of this and different Nobel Prizes in 2021 reignited what has been a sensitive topic in science – the difficulty of sufficient illustration.

In his will, Alfred Nobel famous: “It’s my categorical want that when awarding the prizes, no consideration be given to nationality, however that the prize be awarded to the worthiest particular person, whether or not or not they’re Scandinavian.”

Though these phrases indicate that the Nobel Prize is awarded solely primarily based on advantage and scientific achievements, the demographics of awardees has made it obvious that many numerous people are being ignored as contenders.

The Nobel Prize has existed for greater than 100 years. Throughout this time, there was a lot critique of the Nobel Prize choice course of on the shortage of variety and illustration amongst its recipients. For instance, between 1901 and 2021, solely 59 ladies have been awarded the Nobel Prize in comparison with a staggering 888 males which have received. Greater than half of the awards given to ladies had been inside roughly the final 20 years. In 2021, no girl acquired the award, which brought about some turmoil throughout the scientific neighborhood.

In an article written for Nature, Goran Hansson, the secretary basic of the Royal Swedish Academy in Science, acknowledged that progress towards diversification is shifting slowly and that science wants extra ladies in larger positions with the assets to make scientific breakthroughs that may be acknowledged by the Nobel choice committee. In accordance with the United Nations Instructional, Scientific and Cultural Group Institute for Statistics, lower than 30 per cent of the world’s researchers are ladies.

However lack of variety doesn’t simply cease at gender. Racial variety is missing much more than gender variety. There has solely been one male black recipient of the Nobel Prize, in 1979 when W. Arthur Lewis received for his work in economics. In 2015, Tu Youyou, who received the Nobel Prize in drugs, was the one recipient to be a lady of color. Geographically, nearly all of winners have been from Western nations.


It’s unknown what number of discoveries are being missed out on by neglecting to appoint researchers that come from numerous backgrounds.

The issue of homogeneity in awardees results in doubts about whether or not efforts are really being made to enhance this disparity. As acknowledged by Kelsey Johnson, an astronomer on the College of Virginia in Charlottesville, it’s unknown what number of concepts and discoveries are being missed out on by neglecting to appoint or award researchers that come from numerous backgrounds.

One attainable driver to the shortage of variety is the nomination course of itself. Abdel El Manira, a member of the Nobel committee, instructed us that “all former Nobel Prize winners have the best to appoint; all professors in drugs within the Scandinavian universities have the best to appoint; after which there are totally different academies and totally different establishments which are invited to appoint potential candidates.”

Nevertheless, nominators are usually dictated by “… by advantage of their tutorial positions or memberships of nationwide academies…”, which can constrain the variety of nominators that contribute. Sometimes, Nobel Prizes are granted to full-fledged professors at prestigious universities. Girls and minority teams occupy few tenure-track positions in establishments, which can contribute to the smaller pool of appropriate ladies and minority candidates for this award.

In accordance with a 2019 Nature article, the Nobel committee has taken steps to enhance variety by encouraging nominators to think about gender, geography, and matter. Since 2019, a bigger group of scientists and establishments have been invited to take part within the nomination course of in hopes that nominators from a wide range of backgrounds will acknowledge the efforts of a extra numerous group.

Although these are small steps and didn’t influence the 2021 awards, there’s hope that these modifications will inch us nearer to growing variety amongst the Nobel recipients. A few of the extra radical modifications which were prompt, together with introducing quotas for minority teams. Nevertheless, this has drawn appreciable criticism as implementing quotas sparks the query of whether or not the prize is received due to its influence within the scientific world or as a result of it meets the designated quota for that yr.

Rose Hill, a postdoctoral fellow in Patapoutian’s lab, joyfully described to us the second she and her lab mates had been notified of successful the Nobel Prize. “We had been all extremely, I imply pleasantly so, however extremely shocked. Being on the West Coast and the award being in Europe, we had been really awoken by a bunch textual content from a lab member at round 2 or 3 a.m. And it simply mentioned …verify the information, verify this web site. And that’s how we came upon and it was simply such a loopy whirlwind day. We’ve all been extraordinarily, extraordinarily glad for (Patapoutian) and for everybody within the lab who contributed to that work.”

There are possible many scientists on the market that dream to expertise what Hill and her teammates did once they came upon they had been awarded the Nobel Prize. In due time, we hope that scientists from underrepresented communities additionally will really feel as if their work might be acknowledged pretty.

 To be taught extra about under-representation in STEM fields and features of the Nobel Prize, we invite you to take a look at our episodes #103 (Underrepresentation in STEM) and #107 (Unravelling the Nobel Prize and Contact Sensations). Additionally, do take a look at the hyperlinks embedded on this article, in addition to some fascinating assets the groups have compiled within the episodes’ present notes, wherever you get your podcasts.

We wish to acknowledge our contributors to Uncooked Speak Podcast’s episodes #103 (“Underrepresentation in STEM”) and #107 (“Unravelling the Nobel Prize and Contact Sensations”). Rachel, Daniel, Swapna, and Michelle had been our Present Hosts; Kiko, Atefeh, and Angela had been our Content material Creators; Alex and Anukrati had been our Audio Engineers; Noor was our Co-Govt Producer and Yagnesh was our Advisor.


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