Opinion: An ignoble prize?

At the time of his death in 1896, Alfred Nobel bequeathed his entire fortune as an endowment to humanity. His last will and testament specified that the generated interest “shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”

He specified five categories; physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. The first prizes set at 150,782 kronor were awarded in 1901. In 1968 the Swedish Central Bank (Svenska Riksbanken) inaugurated a sixth prize, the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. It is awarded jointly with the original five prizes and receives the same stature. However, the prize money comes not from the Nobel Foundation, but the Riksbank.

It has become today’s most recognizable distinction of honour, awarded annually in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death. Each laureate receives a medal, a personalized diploma and the prize amount, set in 2001 at SEK 10 million. (The prize amount had previously varied year-to-year based on the accumulated interest on the original endowment).

All of the six awards can be divided among several laureates, though the amended statutes of the Nobel Foundation limit the number to three. Nevertheless, the honour of the prize does not diminish if shared with other laureates. It reigns supreme as the pinnacle of achievement. But has Alfred Nobel’s noble ideology backfired?

One common criticism among scientists is that some scientists devote all their efforts, indeed their whole careers, to attaining the prize. Gina Kolata at the University of Massachusetts suggests that many scientists “may be more adept at lobbying [for the prize] than they are at science.”

A Nobel Prize attached to a scientist’s credentials serves as personal and professional validation. It moves the laureate to god-like podium; irreproachable for all intents and purposes. Are we compromising the scientific methods of science?

Dr. J William Langston, the director of the Parkinson’s Foundation, goes so far as to say that while the Nobel Prize is supposed to recognize the best in science it, “Has become part of science itself.” Science nowadays may be more the tail wagging the dog.

A case in point: Dr. Arthur Kornberg received the 1959 Nobel Prize for discovering the enzyme that copies DNA. As it turns out, he had discovered the wrong enzyme.

Despite this scientific blunder, Dr. Kornberg retained his prize. This was the least of the problem. His new stature overshadowed the efforts of all ensuing scientists to disprove him – including his own son,Thomas Kornberg.

Kornberg, the younger eventually discovered the correct enzyme in 1970. In fact, this discovery could have been suppressed for many more years, clearly not a benefit to humanity. Thomas never received the Nobel Prize for his “accurate” discovery.

Nobel’s will left much to interpretation which is already controversial enough. There will always be disagreement in the committee’s choice of laureates. But with eyes on the prize instead of the discovery, does the Nobel Prize come at too great a price for all of humanity?

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Elizabeth Dacey-Fondelius

Elizabeth Dacey-Fondelius is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in Stockholm.

Photographer: Hans Pettersson/ Copyright: Nobel Foundation/ Source: imagebank.sweden.se