Nobel Prizes: A golden plate with the profile of Alfred Nobel

The emerging trends of Nobel Prizes in science


The Nobel Prizes have been awarded almost uninterruptedly each October since 1901 with the newest 12 Nobel Laureates in 2018. The Prizes have transcended the boundaries of time and geography in recognising excellence with 935 Nobel Laureates on all continents except Anartica. Of these, 607 are in science (PCM; Physics, Chemistry, and Medicine or Physiology) and 328 in Economics, Peace and Literature. Most of the data in this publication are derived from Nobel Prize website and/or Wikipedia.

This article analyses PCM Nobel Prizes which have stood the test of time in fulfilling the legacy of Alfred Nobel, that they be awarded for the “most important discovery or inventions.” We use a different lens for the emerging trends of Nobel history with the changing times. For example, the Nobel Prizes are increasingly shared by a group of two or three indicating teamwork and collaboration. Another trend is that the Prizes are U.S. centric with dominance of “white” men in the Nobel landscape. It represents an unprecedented “Nobel Divide,” from the perspective of gender and geography and a reflection of increasing divide even among the developed economies, let alone the developing countries?

Little did Nobel know that his legacy will accelerate cross border sharing of ideas to get the best scientific work recognised We analyse the macro trends by dividing Nobel history in three distinct periods; 1901-1950; 1951-2000; and 2001 onward. We extrapolate the trends within the permissible uncertainties to forecast what may lie beyond 2018 to engage readers in discussion. Further, we discuss the cap of “no more than three” and its relevance in the emerging era of “Big Science.” The gender gap among the Nobel Laureates is also a subject of serious discussion.

Period 1901-1950

During these turbulent years with two world wars; and start of the cold war, the resources were directed to R&D for defence and warfare. Yet, many profound discoveries were recognised with Nobel Prize although the scientific enterprise was not as well organised and funded. The collaboration was limited at best and the science done in isolation. For example, Einstein and many others succeeded as solitary scholars and won Nobel Prize for their pathbreaking research. This period had a record 95 Prizes awarded to individuals, 26 shared by two; and just 6 shared by three in PCM The bar chart below shows the number of Prizes in PCM for various time periods. Note that no Prizes were awarded primarily during the world wars.

Back then, Germany had 50 Nobel Laureates followed by the U.S. (45), U.K. (41) and France (32). There is little evidence of cross border collaboration because the means for communication and travel were limited. The turbulent environment did not encourage collaboration either. The diversity of nations (India, Japan, and Argentina) had their first Nobel scientist.

Perhaps, the gender balance was hardly a conversation in the late 1800’s with Nobel’s legacy stating, “greatest benefit to mankind.” Was “mankind” meant to exclude women or just an unconscious use of the word without realising its negative connotation in the times to come? The fact is that only 4 Nobel Prizes in the sciences and 8 in Peace and Literature included women. A further analysis of science Prizes to women has several notable facts about the legendary Madame Curie. She is the only woman ever with Prizes in Physics (1903) and Chemistry (1911) who pierced the ceiling of gender bias although not without hiccups. Her daughter (Irène Joliot-Curie) received the 1935 Nobel in Chemistry. Only other woman with 1947 Nobel in Physiology/Medicine was Gerty Theresa Cori. History is forever grateful for these pioneering women scientists to be rightfully recognised in the first fifty years.

Nobel Prizes awarded to One or shared by Two or Three

Period 1951-2000

The escalating cold war and industrial revolution shaped and transformed science advancement with an increased collaboration and competition for the race to the top. The U.S. became a Super Nobel Power with 217 Nobel Laureates (almost 5 times more than 1901-1950) due to exponential increase in funding for research, better organised scientific enterprise, and the immigration of the best and brightest to the U.S. The European countries experienced a relative decline and Japan, Russia, and Canada showed a perceptible surge in the number of science laureates. The scientists from Mexico, China, Pakistan, Australia, South Africa, and Venezuela had their first entry in an expanding Nobel orbit.

Note a nearly 50% decline (see the graph) in the Nobel Prizes awarded to individuals; ~47% increase in the Prizes shared between two, but a steep rise of ~88% in the Prizes shared by three. Why? The science became increasingly complex requiring more brain power and specialised tools scattered in different locations. The improved and reliable communication technologies, e.g. the Internet, enabled people to connect and collaborate. It appears that more Nobel worthy research occurred within the national borders, perhaps an unspoken tendency to compete for national pride. Only 7 women PCM laureates were in this period; factually more than doubling from 3 during 1901-50 but no perceptible dent in bridging the gender gap.

Period 2001-2018

The turn of the century brought unprecedented sophistication of the Internet and information technologies, rise in computational speed and power, and the data analytics. The general attitude of the society has been to want the best of everything at their fingertips anytime and anywhere.

With expanding access to data sharing and knowledge, the scientific community also self-imposed expectations for understanding the fundamentals of science in greater depth and breadth. Thus, the need for sophisticated equipment for reliable experiments grew. A good example of science journey in time is Thomson’s discovery of structure of matter in 1909 using primitive equipment to the modern Large Hadron Collider (LHC). This Geneva based LHC is the world’s largest, most complex, and sophisticated accelerator built with collaboration of over 10,000 scientists from hundreds of countries, universities, and laboratories. These are the signs of changing times that modern discoveries necessitate extreme measures and collaboration. Yet, there is no mechanism to award the Nobel to an organisation or a team of more than three.

The Nobel Prizes in the first 18 years of this century show a clear trend of increased number of shared Prizes and a dramatic decrease of individuals receiving the Prize Nearly 90% of the Prizes were shared by two or three. This period added only 9 women and the U.S. continues to lead with an average of 6 Nobel Laureates added to its roaster each year.

The future (2019-2050)

What do we learn from the Nobel history of 118 years? If extrapolated to 2050 using the current trends (see the graph above), our projection is that ~ 90% of PCM Prizes between 2019-2050 will be shared by two or more. Also, with increased recognition and the urgency for closing the gender gap, as many as 40-50 women scientists will join the Nobel space. The number of Nobel Laureates in the U.S. will continue to dominate which will further exasperate the Nobel Divide. More Asians are likely to join the Nobel orbit because of the continually increasing investments in Asia in science and innovation.

The process of nomination to conferring the PCM Nobel Prizes has worked well. The spirit of collaboration, even with the urge to compete, has survived in recognising the “most worthy” year after year. Yet, the Nobel leadership has at least two significant challenges for the foreseeable future.

The Gender Gap

The widening gender gap requires the most attention. How can we justify that only 20 of 607 Nobel Laureates in PCM are women? There are dozens, if not hundreds, Nobel class women scientists who were either not nominated and/or nominated but not awarded the Prize. While we celebrate the two outstanding women Nobels in 2018 (Donna Strickland in physics and Frances Arnold in chemistry), we also focus on a legendary British scientist (Jocelyn Bell Burnell) overlooked and deemed unworthy for Nobel in 1967. She is now awarded the 2018 Breakthrough Prize, who, as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge observed Pulsar along with her supervisor, Antony Hewish. Years later, a Nobel Prize in physics in 1974 was awarded to Hewish (and another male physicist) but without Bell Burnell. She spoke graciously then and even defended the committee’s decision.

In a rare gesture of donating the Breakthrough Prize money ($3 million) for a noble cause of funding women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers, Bell Burnell said, “Those are the people that tend to be discriminated against through unconscious bias so I think that’s maybe one of the reasons why there aren’t so many.” She also went on to add, “Nobel Prizes rarely go to young people; they more often go to established people and it’s at that level that there are fewer women in physics.” This is clearly her way to reminisce of being left out of the Nobel orbit as a student. In contrast, Donna Strickland shared the 2018 Nobel with her supervisor, a sign of changing times. In fact, Bell Burnell raised two of the most critical issues of our time- the gender bias and age discrimination which must be dealt with head on by the powers to be at the Nobel headquarters.


We surmise that there are certainly more women deserving of the Nobel, but they are not making the list. Therefore, the first and foremost action- more women nominations for the Nobel. The facts are that everyone cannot nominate for the Nobel nor the list of nominators is obvious without digging the Nobel website deeper. An option is to forward the names of outstanding women and why they deserve the Nobel to the most visible nominators, i.e. the Nobel Laureates in the discipline.

A coordinated effort is needed to develop a network of PCM advocates of gender parity without compromising quality. Madame Curie could not have made to the list if Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler, an advocate of women scientists and a nominating committee member, did not notice that Curie was not nominated in 1902. She wrote to Pierre Curie (husband of Marie Curie) advising him of the situation. In turn, Pierre Curie wrote, “a Nobel Prize for research in radioactivity that failed to acknowledge Marie’s pivotal role would be a travesty.” Thus, the advocacy changed the history.

Lately, Goran Hansson, the secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (RSAS) stated, “We are disappointed, looking in a larger perspective, that there aren’t more women who’ve been awarded (Nobel).” With the acknowledgement of the issue, what should PCM community do? Get proactively involved with nominations and having more women/women advocates on RSAS (currently only~13% women among ~600 members) and disciplinary Nobel Committees (currently only one woman out of six). It is no guarantee, nor it should be, that increased women presence will automatically mean more women laureates in the future, but it will be a step in the right direction for gender parity on the respective committees.

The Cap of Three

Undeniably, the scientific research is getting ever more complex and expansive; the global brainpower, resources and collaboration are now needed for tackling the Big Science, and more Prizes are shared by a team of three. Considering the confidentiality of Nobel award process, who could say with any degree of certainty that there was no equally deserving 4th person for the Prize, but the current “cap of three” may have excluded him/her? With changing need for collaboration for excellence, the Nobel leadership must seriously consider loosening the “cap of three,” on a case by case basis.

We must also recognise that the 21st century is equally poised to unlocking the mysteries of Big Science and thus a need to consider organisation like LHC for Nobel nomination. Let the respective PCM committees deliberate on the merits of an organisation being worthy, rather than a blanket denial from consideration under present scenario.


The Nobel Prizes are the “gold” standard of excellence, a symbol of prestige and recognition, and come with significant money. Who would not want this “all in one” Prize? The scientists as human beings have the urge for “winning” and silently compete for the race to the top. While, the Nobel legacy has driven unprecedented collaboration for groundbreaking discoveries for the greatest benefit to mankind, the increasing climate of competition cannot be ruled out. Judging from the journey of 118 years and emerging trends, we should be proud of the integrity of Nobel process in honouring excellence, but we must recognise the need for change which encourages and rewards collaboration and promotes inclusion in gender and geography in the Nobel landscape. The discovery or inventions recognised with Nobel Prize are signature indicators of the inevitability of “change” and therefore the Nobel leadership is urged to consider change for improved gender balance and flexibility.

Vijendra Agarwal
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