Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Are the Nobel Prizes Overdue for a Makeover?

Yesterday marked the announcement of the 2009 winners of the Nobel Prize for Physiology/ Medicine. Recipients this year were Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, Carol W. Greider of Johns Hopkins University of School of Medicine, and Jack W. Szostak of Harvard Medical School. The award was in recognition of the discovery of telomeres and telomerase; two important pieces of our greater genetic puzzle.

Discovering how our genetic materials stays intact as cells divide is important to understanding one of the most basic processes in human biology, cell division. Cells are the structural and functional unit of an organism and they divide to allow for growth and to keep the organism (that means you!) healthy. As cells divide, telomeres protect the chromosomes (which house your genes). Telomeres are built by the enzyme telomerase. So, you can see why these scientists have been recognized by the Nobel Foundation.

The Nobel Prize is recognized internationally as arguably the most prestigious award bestowed to recognize achievements in the fields of physics, physiology or medicine, literature, peace, and economics. They were established in 1901, and have undergone very little change since their inception. The most recent update to the awards was the addition of the award for Economics in the 1950s. Now, in a world where you can’t seem to listen to the news without hearing about climate change, renewable energy, and health care, a group of scientists are suggesting that the Nobels need a makeover.

The New Scientist reported last week that a group of scientists are calling for the addition of two awards to recognize achievement in environmental research and public health. They also want an expansion of the Nobel Prize of Physiology/Medicine to include all of the Life Sciences.

This article got me thinking… They do have a point. Certainly there is ground breaking research occurring in fields that may not exactly match this category, but contribute vital information to the public. For example, would Darwin’s Theory of Evolution have been considered under the current categories? Certainly this is a basic and accepted tenet of science, but I suspect it would not fall in to the criteria for the Nobel for Physiology/Medicine.

So, I’m curious to know what others in the public think. Groups countering this argument suggest that while there are limitations to these categories, there might be more harm done than good if it's changes. Basically, it’s worked so far, so why change? They also point out that there are other awards for disciplines not recognized by the Nobel.

Proponents argue the latter point by saying that the Nobel is the most prestigious, and should not limit itself to particular disciplines in the life science. And I say, isn’t science all about adapting and changing with progress? So I'm interested in what you think. Should the Nobel Prize be revamped?


  1. I think the current categories don't reflect the areas of science that are most valuable to society now. Including environmental research would include that in climate change, fresh water management, harmful algal blooms, food management (fish, agriculture, lifestock etc.), astronomy and more. These areas have practical quality-of-life applications as well as increase our understanding of the world.

  2. It's worth noting that 1) Greider was Blackburn's grad student but Blackburn shared the glory (unlike several male recipients) and 2) Blackburn was the scientist who got fired from the Bush "bioethics panel" for daring to inject some reality into the stem cell debate.