by Krystal Jacques
Most of us have heard of the prestigious Nobel Prize, awarded annually in five categories: Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace. There is also an additional Memorial Prize in Economics. Not a single woman was awarded last year.1 This may or may not be coincidental. Where does this award come from in the first place? And how are awardees selected from hundreds of candidates? How does one decide on whom to choose? The process behind the Nobel Prize is elusive to most of the public, but the controversial ways in which people are selected for the award warrants public attention.
The Royal Swedish Academy, which was founded in 1739, initiated the existence of the five categories of the Nobel Prize in 1835 after the death of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist and engineer.2 Alfred Nobel amassed a fortune during his lifetime due to his impressive 355 inventions. His will specified that his fortune be used to create a series of prizes for individuals who create the “greatest benefit on mankind in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace.”2 I imagine the process of deciding whose work fulfills this criteria is not entirely unbiased. Each award recipient, known as a Nobel Laureate, receives a diploma, a gold medal, and a sum of money. As of 2020, each award in each category is worth about $935, 366 U.S. The recipient of the award must be alive, and the award cannot be granted to more than three individuals in any one category.
The Royal Swedish Academy’s core committee of 18 Swedish members confidentially invites people to nominate potential winners. Those who are invited to nominate generally include its own members, past Nobel Laureates in the field, tenured professors from Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway, department chairs from elsewhere, and other scientists or presidents of author societies. Membership lasts three years.
Today the committee who nominates and selects awardees consist of 440 Swedish and 175 international members.1 In the last few years, more women were elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry and economics. By involving more women in the selection and nomination process, the organizations that award the Nobel Prizes hoped bias towards males being selected would be reduced.3 However, this is most likely unhelpful as it has been well documented that women do not select women any more than men during the process of evaluation for recruiting in the academic and non-academic workforce, and when reviewing publications for journal acceptance4,5,6.
The proportion of women who have won the Nobel prize in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine has remained consistent in the past century despite the growing number of women significantly contributing to the scientific research field.7 As of today there are only 46 female laureates. Out of these 46 women, only 16 were awarded the Nobel Prize for their contribution in research while the remaining 30 women obtained the prize in economics, literature and peace.7
Marie Curie was the first woman Nobel Laureate in physics — which was awarded in 1903. For the next six decades, no other women physicists were found eligible to receive this honor. In 1911, Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize again in Chemistry. Her daughter, Irene-Joliet Curie, was awarded a Nobel Prize, along with her husband, in Chemistry 24 years later for her work in the synthesis of new radioactive elements. Maria Goeppert-Mayer is the second female physicist to have won the Nobel Prize in Physics along with Wigner and Jensen in 1963. Gerty Cori was the third woman ever to have won the Nobel Prize for her work on identifying some of the intermediates formed during glucose metabolism. In retrospect, there are many other notable women who should have won the Nobel Prize to fill in the long gaps seen here, such as Nattic Maria Stevens whose work concluded that a combination of X and Y chromosomes could determine an individual’s sex.
Rosalind Franklin’s story is an excellent example of how a woman researcher got pushed aside during the recognition process. Franklin was an expert on X-crystallography, and was one of the few scientists at the time trying to determine the structure of DNA.1 Based on her X-ray diffraction images Franklin had determined the precise distances between repetitive elements and angles formed by chemical bonds.8 She had written all her observations and measurements as an informal report which was sent to Max Perutz (who also won the Nobel Prize for his work on hemoglobin) at Cambridge University soon before she decided to abandon her work on DNA.8 Max Perutz shared her private work to his protégés Watson and Crick who realized that Franklin’s images immediately suggested a double helical structure of DNA. Watson and Crick interpreted Franklin’s data in new insightful ways to create a detailed model of double helical structure of DNA in 1953.8 At that time of proposal, Franklin was invited to see the model.8 Immediately after watching their proposal, she believed that the model must be right. The model was published as the sole work of Watson and Crick, while the supporting data was published by Franklin and her supervisor Wilkins.8 Eight years later the Nobel Prize was awarded to Watson and Crick.1 By this time Franklin had already died from ovarian cancer, and the Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously.
The process behind the Nobel Prize is elusive to most of the public, but the controversial ways in which people are selected for the award warrants public attention.
There are other similar, unfortunate cases such as these. Canadian Maud Menten discovered the constant Km in 1912 and along with Michaelis developed the Michaelis-Menten equation.9 There were many opportunities in which Menten’s work could have been considered for the Nobel Prize between 1912 and her death in 1960. Ida Noddack (1896–1978), who discovered the element rhenium and was the first to mention the idea of nuclear fission, published a paper in 1934 criticizing Enrico Fermi’s apparent discovery of element 93 being a product of nuclear fusion by the bombardment of uranium with neutrons.10 She suggested that his experimental results lead to nuclear fission, not fusion, as the process creating element 93. Her hypothesis was actively refused for nine years,10 and instead Enrico Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize for his supposed work on fusion in 1938.1 However, it turned out Noddack was right -it was fission. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry three times however was never successful in obtaining it.10 For both Menten and Noddack these instances suggest that it was not because of a short lifespan and delayed recognition of their work that lead to them not receiving the Nobel Prize, but rather their work was overlooked or under biased review.
Despite Franklin, Leonara, and Noddack, as well as other women making outstanding contribution to innovative scientific research, the Nobel nomination eluded them. Besides the lack of female nominations in research, there are other instances in which the Nobel awards were controversial, such as Barack Obama being awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 (one year after being elected as President) for his promise in the future to prevent nuclear war.1,11 However, Obama has been criticized for merely replacing one type of war with another, by means of employing new technology, including armed drones and cyber weapons. During all eight years of Obama’s presidential tenure, U.S. military forces have been at war with several countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.11 The award couldn’t have come at a more awkward time: when Obama finalized plans to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to airstrike Afghanistan in an attempt to stabilize the country.11 Many Obama supporters did not understand this decision and agreed that Obama was not a worthy recipient of that award-“12 Obama’s acceptance speech at the award ceremony in Norway reflects his own hesitancy to pick up the award: “To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism. It is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”11 In addition, when deciding the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Norway’s foreign minister at the time attempted to dissuade the committee from awarding Liu Xiobo, an activist in China, fearing it would strain Norway’s relationship with Beijing.13 Not only is the Nobel Prize nomination committee lacking in diversity and intentionally or unintentionally biased to not select women for science Nobel Prizes, but the selection process is also highly political.
The awards committee acknowledges their gender bias existed up until the 90’s and have made efforts to have better women representation on the nomination committee. However, women are also more likely to nominate men over women just like their male peers. Despite the possibility that this may not lead to women being recognized in research, the Nobel committee believes that the fraction of women Nobel Laureates will increase as time moves forward without any other changes. Perhaps the committee will consider blinding a part of the reviewing process, such that one group of nominators would receive the work of potential individuals, ad evaluate their work without being aware of the names of the individuals. Until then, it is our social responsibility to have an interest in the political nature of the Nobel Prize, and in all the ways that sex, and privilege shapes the reality we live in.
- Nobel Media AB [homepage on the internet]. Updated 2020. Available from: https://www.nobelprize.org/all-2019-nobel-prizes/.
- Locke, S. How the Nobel Prize became the most controv ersial award on Earth. [Internet]. Vox; 2016 Oct 5 [cited 2020 Mar 9]. https://www.vox.com/2014/10/6/6895363/nobel-prizes-winners-controversies-explained.
- Frazee G. Why the 2019 Nobel Prizes in STEM struggled with diversity. [Internet]. Making Sense; 2019 Oct 14 [cited 2020 Mar 9]. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/making-sense/why-the-nobel-prizes-in-science-are-struggling-with-diversity.
- Moss-Racusin CA, Dovidio JF, Brescoll VL, Graham MJ, Handelsman J. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proc Nat Acad Sci. [Internet]. 2012 Oct 9 [cited 2020 Mar 9];109(41):16474-9. Available from: https://www.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474.
- Helmer M, Schottdorf M, Neef A, Battaglia D. Gender bias in scholarly peer review. Elife. [Internet]. 2017 Mar 21 [cited 2020 Mar 9];6:e21718. Available from: https://elifesciences.org/articles/21718.
- Knobloch-Westerwick S, Glynn CJ, Huge M. The Matilda effect in science communication: an experiment on gender bias in publication quality perceptions and collaboration interest. Sci Commun. [Internet]. 2013 Oct [cited 2020 Mar 9];35(5):603-25. Available from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1075547012472684.
- Modgil S, Gill R, Sharma VL, Velassery S, Anand A. Nobel nominations in science: constraints of the fairer sex. Ann Neurosci. [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2020 Mar 9];25(2):63-79. Available from: https://www.karger.com/Article/Fulltext/481906.
- Cobb, M. Sexism in Science: did Watson and Crick really steal Rosalind Franklin’s data. [Internet]. The Gaurdian; 2015 Jun 23 [cited 2020 March 18].
- Bergeron, J. A Canadian science heroine’s role in this year’s Nobel. [Internet] McGill Publications; 2018 Nov [cited 2020 July 13]. Available from: https://publications.mcgill.ca/medenews/2018/11/07/a-canadian-science-heroines-role-in-this-years-nobel-chemistry-prize/
- Santos GM. A tale of oblivion: Ida Noddack and the ‘universal abundance’of matter. Notes and Records: the Royal Society Journal of the History of Science. 2014 Dec 20;68(4):373-89.
- Parsons, C and Hennigan, W.J. President Obama, who hoped to sow peace, instead led the nation in war. [Internet]. The Los Angeles Times; 2017 Jan 13 [cited 2020 July 13. Available from: https://www.latimes.com/projects/la-na-pol-obama-at-war/
- Nobel secretary regrets Obama peace prize [Internet]. BBC news; 2015 Sept 17 [cited 2020 Mar 9]. Available from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34277960.
- Nobel Peace Prize faces boycotts over Liu Xiaobo. [Internet]. BBC News; 2010 Sept 7 [cited 2020 Mar 9]. Available from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-11935230.