Science has changed, and so must the Nobel Prize

'There is an enlarged pool of outstanding scientists. The solution is simple: fewer prizes, not more'

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The Nobel season is again upon us. For natural scientists, it is a nail-biting time. Those who believe their year may have come do not stray far from the phone for fear of missing that call from Stockholm - but dare not explain why. For those in the running, to live through it must be like watching one of the TV programmes on which the weekly lottery numbers are decided - if you have a ticket.

The Nobel season is again upon us. For natural scientists, it is a nail-biting time. Those who believe their year may have come do not stray far from the phone for fear of missing that call from Stockholm - but dare not explain why. For those in the running, to live through it must be like watching one of the TV programmes on which the weekly lottery numbers are decided - if you have a ticket.

The analogy is not unfair. The Nobel process is a lottery of a kind. That is not to say that past recipients of the prize have been chosen at random. All of them unmistakably stand out among their peers. They may have planned and executed an important, perhaps an elegant, experiment. They may have devised a theory that recasts the language of our understanding of the world. They may have devised a novel technique that promises to change the way that science is done. When this year's prizewinners have been nominated - and there may be up to nine in the natural sciences - their peers will almost certainly acknowledge that they are worthy and laudable Nobellists.

The element of lottery has arisen because the pool from which to choose is now much greater than Alfred Nobel could have imagined. The world's research institutes are bursting with imaginative people with intellectual energy in the classic mould of the winners of the most coveted science prize. Simple arithmetic (and the condition of Nobel's will stipulating that no more than three people can share any prize) means that, at the end of the Nobel season, there is a growing army of worthy and laudable people who have been disappointed.

Even so, the Nobel committees also make mistakes. The most recent concerned the award of the prize for physiology and medicine (which means biology) three years ago for the discovery that the simple gas nitric oxide is also one of the molecular agents used in communication between nerve cells. The implications, not yet understood, are likely to be considerable. Yet the list of three prizewinners omitted the name of Salvador Moncado, from University College London, who published his account of the discovery six months before the eventual winners.

The neglect of Sir Fred Hoyle by Stockholm is another puzzle. Since the Second World War, Hoyle has been one of the most imaginative and ingenious of theoretical astrophysicists. Among other things, in the 1950s, he was the prime mover (with his colleagues Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge and WH Fowler) in demonstrating how stars such as the Sun turn the primeval materials hydrogen and helium into all the elements found in the solar system (and in the systems around all other stars as well).

So, what news from Stockholm? A decade ago, the late "Willie" Fowler, from the California Institute of Technology, was awarded a prize for his essential contribution to the enterprise, which consisted of accurate measurements of the rates of nuclear reactions in stellar interiors. No mention of the others. Of course, there are excuses. Nobel's will allows only three-way splits, while astronomy as a whole has to be catered for beneath the umbrella of physics. Yet Stockholm has been adept at bending the rules when it chooses.

Plainly, there is a need to reform the procedures so that egregious and damaging oversights such as those are avoided. There is also a case for more radical reform. The present pattern of prizes (in physics; chemistry; and physiology and medicine) does not fit the pattern of even 20th-century science. Under which rubric would Stockholm put the quantum computers that some believe to be around the corner, or the uncovering of the authentic history of the human race by blending genetics and palaeoanthropology?

What world science needs is a thorough overhaul of the Nobel Foundation's work, excellent though it has been for nearly 100 years. The prize system should openly recognise that science is, now more than ever, a collective enterprise. Particle physics is notorious for scientific articles with several hundred authors; now the habit has spread to biology. (Which of several thousand people will win a Nobel for the Human Genome Project?) By extension, prizes should be divided between authors and their institutions (which would reduce the tendency for new prizewinners to be hired away by richer institutions).

The solution to the disparity caused by the enlarged pool of outstanding scientists is simple: fewer prizes, not more. Last century there were perhaps a score of discoveries in science - such as the structure of DNA - that changed the way we regard the world. The century ahead will probably bring 50 or more. Why not keep the bulk of the prize money to single out such discoveries, designing each prize to suit the circumstances? The dangers of invidious choice would of course remain, but there is a proven remedy: the Booker Prize. The Nobel Foundation could publish a shortlist before making its final adjudication. Even the losers would then have something to boast about, while the rest of us would be better able to judge whether the procedure is free from hidden prejudice.

The writer is editor emeritus of 'Nature' and the first honorary fellow of the Royal Society

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