Eyes on the Prize

Reform ideas for the Nobel

Is prize philanthropy ever a bad idea? In Losing the Nobel Prize, physicist Brian Keating controversially argues it can be.

Keating’s critique begins in 2014, when a scientific group he was a part of, BICEP2, held a press conference claiming it found what it believed to be gravitational waves related to the Big Bang. Almost immediately the team entered the shortlist of contenders for that year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. Hopes were high, but within a year it became clear that the lauded waves were actually cosmic dust, and with one gust of wind the team’s Nobel hopes were gone.

What’s new in Keating’s book is his honest admission that the BICEP2 team had knowledge all along that its discovery could be dust. But with a desire to win the Nobel, and not be scooped by another team of researchers, the team went forward with the publicity anyway. It went so far as to withhold its findings from another research group, which eventually got hold of the data anyway and disproved the initial interpretation. Keating uses this disappointing experience as his launch pad to examine and criticize the Nobel Prize as it currently exists.

His suggestions for reform include: Adding new categories in emerging fields such as artificial intelligence or quantitative biology; removing the restriction of the three-person maximum for the prize in physics; giving awards retroactively, to provide the opportunity to correct past wrongs—such as several cases where men were awarded the prize for discoveries that should have been credited to female scientists; allowing posthumous awards to be made; and rewarding serendipitous discovery, as opposed to the current system of rewarding the confirmation of previous theories.

One questions whether the BICEP2 team’s questionable race to the finish line can truly be considered a systemic failure of the Nobel Prize. But Keating’s suggested modifications, most of them unrelated to his own failure, deserve consideration. For instance, allowing posthumous awards would correct for the great amount of time it takes for scientific research to be done properly, verified, and understood in its significance. There have been many cases where worthy scientists have not been given the recognition they deserve during their lifetime—and insofar as the prize is meant as an incentive to discovery, this would offer an extra spur to achievement even among older scientists.

Keating’s idea to reward only serendipitous discovery is intended to inspire more out-of-the-box thinking. But it stands apart from the methodical way that most scientific research necessarily works.

While his suggestions are specific to the Nobel process, these same motives are at the heart of much prize philanthropy—to spur on creative competition, to reward unconventional thinking, to produce greater breakthroughs. Yes, competitive pressures can lead some teams to cut corners—but they also generate greater activity and momentum, even among the nonwinners. Studying the successes and failures of prize systems like the Nobel can be informative to donors looking to encourage new avenues of innovation.

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