The Nobel Prizes Are Broken: No More Superman – We Need the Avengers
By Eric Daimler Ph.D, CEO and Co-Founder, Conexus AI & Former Advisor to President Obama
The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting a truth we have known for some time: that important scientific achievements are increasingly the result of teams building on the work of other teams over many years. The traditional conception of heroic individual researchers is misleading to the public, and distorts scientific funding by discouraging the recognition of collaboration. Yet the Nobel Prizes continue to limit the number of individuals who can be recognized for a given achievement to just three.1 It is time that high-profile scientific awards like the Nobel Prizes catch up with reality.
During the week of October 5th, the Nobel Prizes for 2020 will be announced. The Nobels for science, which cover the fields of Physiology/Medicine, Chemistry, and Physics, have been given out since 1901.* Over the nearly 120 years of bestowing prestige, a gold medal, and a sum of money on their recipients, the way the Prizes are awarded has barely changed at all, even as the way the awarded science is done has changed profoundly.
The Nobel Prizes in science are awarded most often to an individual, and at most two or three individuals, who have made remarkable advances in their field. But while literature is, almost by definition, a profoundly lonely undertaking, science is not.  Science is a group endeavor—and has only become more so in the last few decades, as globalization and technology have allowed for increased cooperation across specialties, nationalities, and time.
As science becomes increasingly complex, research has expanded into a growing number of specialties and subspecialties. The questions being answered are more sophisticated and complicated than they once were, requiring increased collaboration. For scientific articles indexed in PubMed in the 41 years from 1975 through 2016, the typical number of authors nearly tripled (from 1.9 to 5.67 per article). And in the ten years from 2005 to 2015, the number of authors per article in the three most prominent medical journals increased by more than a third, as did the number of articles featuring group authors.  Some medical papers have literally hundreds of co-authors.
Massive-scale scientific collaboration may have had its kick-start in the 1960s with the advent of NASA’s Apollo Program, which employed more than 400,000 Americans. Later, in the 1990s, the Human Genome Project saw twenty research Universities across six countries collaborate to map the Human Genome. Today we are seeing the continued and vital importance of collaborative science in the massive numbers of people involved in rapid vaccine development and large international drug trials to fight the novel coronavirus.
Yet the Nobels still can only be awarded to one, two, or three scientists. Why is this so critical to address now? There are a couple of very important reasons.
First, awarding the Prizes to individuals is out of step with the increased collaboration now required of our world. There is increased collaboration not only between institutions and individuals, but even between countries. These cooperative efforts toward breakthroughs in understanding should be celebrated rather than obscured.
The response to the COVID-19 pandemic is the perfect backdrop in which to glorify the work of science as a whole. Earlier this year, despite mounting evidence that COVID-19 could be spread by airborne transmission, the World Health Organization refused to acknowledge these findings until 239 scientists from 32 countries around the world came together to publish an open letter. A lone scientist might have been marginalized as a quack; but those 239 scientists made it possible to save countless lives.
Second, individual prizes mislead the public about the very nature of science, which in turn affects public enthusiasm for funding basic research. This concept of singular scientific achievement, perpetuated by major awards like the Nobel, Fields, and Turing Prizes, tends to elevate the idea that only singular geniuses will save us. When we get too fascinated by the concept that one brilliant person will change the world, we get misled about how good science is done. We encourage and fund unique individuals, instead of thinking about a process, a whole collaborative system, that involves as much of the citizenry as possible. In other words, we are incentivizing the wrong behavior.
Further, the Prizes themselves actually provide an incentive not to cooperate. They offer a fixed sum of money to the winners, regardless of their number. This means that in order to maximize the benefits of winning, a scientist must collaborate as little as possible, despite the clear benefits of cooperation on the actual work. Instead, we must find a way to reward cooperation and avoid the oversimplified trope of the lone scientist, because current scientific advancement benefits much more from large groups working together than it does from smaller groups competing with each other. It is not enough to simply spread research funding among more researchers, we must encourage them specifically to work together. For massive scientific undertakings to be successful, a wide array of skills must be employed, including not only those of the researchers themselves, but also of skilled organizers, support staff, and inter-organizational administrators.
With a dwindling amount of government research funding available, it is natural to allocate funding to the most lauded individuals, first, and not to the entire system. But this tendency ignores the importance of scientific collaboration in even the work of those high-profile researchers, as funding is increasingly concentrated among fewer scientists. This in turn decreases the diversity of ideas so desperately needed in responding to a global pandemic. It also slows progress.
Good science isn’t sexy. Important, trustworthy scientific research — the kind that can change the world and save lives — depends on a whole lot of scientists doing a whole lot of decidedly unglamorous work over a long period of time. As research dollars have decreased (or simply been funneled to a few people doing big, “Nobel-worthy” work), a lot of good and necessary science simply doesn’t get done.
Instead of waiting for superheroes, and for brilliant lightning-bolt types of breakthroughs, we need to support concerted scientific efforts — and large, sophisticated research teams working in together — to solve the complex problems we face. A first step would be to recognize either greater numbers of individual authors for a given Nobel Prize, or to allow the scientific Prizes to honor organizations as well as individuals (as the Nobel Peace Prize already does). Also imperative will be abiding by Alfred Nobel’s own stated goal of honoring those who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind”. All of them. To do that, we must recognize and encourage teams of scientists to work as one, rather than encouraging a lottery ticket type of mentality by creating diminishing returns for larger teams. By changing the narrow-minded and outdated nature of the world’s most prestigious scientific prizes, we could acknowledge the complexities of focused scientific research, as well as the amount of teamwork required to do it well.
* The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel wasn’t established until 1968 and isn’t technically a Nobel Prize.32