The “shared” Nobel Prizes in Science

The Nobel Prizes given “for the greatest benefit to humankind” complete a 120-years long history in 2020. These have been conferred on 962 individual Laureates (including 57 women) and 25 organizations. The 2020 announcement of 11 Nobel Laureates and one organization came during an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier, we had published an article on the trends in Nobel Prizes. Here, our major focus is on the “shared” versus “solo” Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, and Medicine/Physiology (PCM). We believe that increasing complexity of scientific enterprise necessitate greater collaboration and thus the Prizes are being shared by two or three.

First, some unusual aspects about the Prizes in the “unique 2020,” the only leap year with repetitive two digits in the Nobel history.  A woman shared the Physics award and thus the total number of women increased from two (1901-2017) to four (1918-1920). The Chemistry Nobel was shared by two women for the first time. There are indicators that the 21st century is beginning to shape up differently, e.g., more shared PCM prizes and a slightly decreasing gender gap.

The number of “shared” and “solo” PCM Prizes are shown in the chart below. Clearly, the shared awards in Physics and Medicine already exceed the solo awards. A deeper analysis shows a rising trend of Prizes being shared in Chemistry. Additionally, the Prize sharing among three has accelerated in the first 20 years of 2000s. Consequently, the number of “solo” versus “shared” Prize in PCM are 148 and 203, respectively.

Today, science is becoming increasingly complex with narrower focus within the broad disciplines. The big science requires “collective brain-power” and sophisticated and expensive instrumentation. The scientists are challenging each other to achieve excellence more than ever before. They are more determined and curious in the fundamental nature of science and applications for the betterment of humankind. That means “high cost” of doing world class science (leading to discoveries).

Science is also becoming more collaborative in the age of rapid, secure, and enhanced communication tools. With that comes expanded knowledge of who is doing what and where and greater mutual discussions, dissemination, and sharing of scientific results. The expectations for the reproducibility and integrity of data and the robust science are on the rise. The policies on scientific misconduct also demand greater transparency and accountability among the scientific community.

The ease of travel across the globe also enhanced collaboration but it may change with the availability of secure video-based tools. The extensive use of the video technology during the pandemic may make it a new normal for collaborative research. We should recognize, however, that the face to face spontaneous interactions are still critical for “accidental” problem solving, inventions, and discoveries.

In conclusion, the increased collaboration is a consequence of reliable and faster communication and science becoming complex and costly. Thus, the collaboration lends itself to the sharing of knowledge, resources, and the Nobel Prize proceeds. The fact that the nature of collaboration in the 21st century is beginning to draw larger groups to solve complex problems, we recommend that the policy of “shared” Prize limited to only three should be reconsidered.  

Written by Vijendra Agarwal, Professor Emeritus, Consultant, Social Entrepreneur and Speaker

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