Are The Nobel Science Prizes Obsolete?

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THE VINE OCTOBER 16, 2009

Are The Nobel Science Prizes Obsolete?

There's an interesting panel discussion in New Scientist on the need to revamp the Nobel prizes. It makes sense. The categories have become obsolete as science marches into the twenty-first century. The science awards, for example, are confined to work done in chemistry, physics, and medicine. But today there are all sorts of new fields that didn't exist when Alfred Nobel died in 1896, and a lot of cutting-edge work is being done in neuroscience or evolutionary biology or computer science. (Granted, there are plenty of non-Nobel awards for these fields, but the Nobel really is unique in being so high-profile.)

Meanwhile, the Peace prize is a worthy idea (even if the execution often leaves something to be desired), but what about greater recognition for work done in public health or, say, biodiversity loss? Right now the Peace is sort of a clumsy catch-all for these categories—Al Gore and the IPCC won in 2007 for climate change, while Medicins San Frontieres won in 1999 for its medical work, but these aren't quite the same thing as peace. As one philanthropist in the article notes, it's a bit weird that, if malaria was eradicated, the only major award the effort could qualify for would be, rather awkwardly, the Peace prize.

And yes, yes, this should all go in the context of Jon Chait's wonderful column today arguing that we should scrap the whole concept of prizes. But the Nobel's not going anywhere, so why not modernize it? It's not like Alfred Nobel's will is too constraining—the economics prize has long managed to sneak into the festivities, even though it's not "technically" a Nobel.

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posted in: the vine, environment and energy, human interest, technology, alfred nobel, neuroscience, new scientist, scientist

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