Nobel Prize Week

Oct 02 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

The Nobel Prizes will be announced next week starting with the Physiology or Medicine Prize on Monday morning. Nobel week took on substantial significance to me during my time as Director of NIGMS. NIGMS had hired a talented science writer in the Communications Office who pointed out that Nobel week was actually quite stressful for science writers. They wake up early in the morning, find out who won the prize, and then have to have a story ready for their editor in short order that might actually be on the front page without knowing the science or having sources available to talk in the early morning. At her suggestion, we started reaching out to reporters prior to the announcements based on the fact that many Nobel Prize winners had been supported by NIH (and, in particular, NIGMS, more on that later) in the past. Every year that I was Director, either the Physiology or Medicine Prize or the Chemistry Prize was awarded to one or more NIGMS grantees.

The outreach strategy was quite successful. I woke up, looked at the Nobel announcement, and then started fielding emails and phone calls from reporters. One of my favorite moments was in 2006 when I was asked by a New York Times reporter why the US tended to do so well with Nobel Prizes. I remember thinking that if I blew this one, I would probably not have a job by the end of the day. I commented that it reflected taxpayer support for science through agencies such as NIH and NSF. This was paraphrased in the article:

Dr. Jeremy M. Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at theNational Institutes of Health, said the honor showed the importance of taxpayer-supported basic research that is not aimed at a certain goal. His institute has provided financial support for Dr. Kornberg’s work since 1979, even when it was unclear if the research would be successful, he said.

Now for some data. Over its history, NIH has supported a total of 145 Nobel laureates. Since its founding in 1962, NIGMS has supported 81 Nobel laureates. This represents 56% of the Nobel Prize winners with approximately 8% of the overall budget. NCI appears to have supported the second most with 29 laureates. Bear in mind that many Nobel laureates have been supported by more that one institute.

While I was President of ASBMB, I wrote a column on the role of serendipity in important discoveries. I examined all of the Nobel Prize winners in Physiology or Medicine, or Chemistry for a 25 year period and subjectively scored the discoveries as serendipity (such as the discovery of RNA interference), driven by problem selection (such as the determination of the structure of RNA polymerase), or a hybrid of these two factors. Overall, I concluded that, of 117 laureates, 14 made serendipitous discoveries, 72 won based on choosing a clearly fundamental problem, and 31 were hybrids.

I have my predictions made for the prizes for this year. I am usually wrong, but have gotten a couple right over the years. One of my long-running favorites, Carl Djerassi, died in February having never been awarded a Nobel despite leading the invention of the birth-control pill and many other fundamental contributions to chemistry. We'll find out what happens next week.

8 responses so far

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Interesting analysis, Datahound. But your last paragraph kind of shows the circularity of the argument. The Nobel Committee tends to be biased towards basic discoveries rather than clinical breakthroughs. Should be called the "Nobel Prize in Physiology (or Medicine if we really just ran out of ideas for Physiology)".

    • datahound says:

      While I see your point, I think it is more complicated than that. With some exceptions, I think the committee does try to recognize advances that have truly influenced medicine. However, another factor is the limitation to at most three recipients. For many clinical breakthroughs, the key advances involved larger teams or multiple groups of investigators. I imagine parsing these down can be challenging. Of course, there also my be bias in the nominations they receive, depending on whom they reach out to for input.

      In the particular case of Carl Djerassi, other factors could certainly be involved. Nobel's will states:

      “The whole of my remaining realizable estate … shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts … one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

      It seems hard to me to argue that the development of the pill did not have a more substantial benefit to mankind than, for example, development of an understanding of the molecular basis of olfaction.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Would be interesting to see how many of the Nobel Laureates were winners of Lasker Basic vs Clinical. I'm guessing it's heavily skewed.

  • Zuska says:

    For inventing a pill that only helps women with their lady-parts functions, you want to give that dude a Nobel? Dream on, dreamer! Maybe if he had come up with something seriously useful that everyone agrees should be non-controversially included in health care coverage, like a 4-hour boner pill. Otherwise, the more obscure & useless to the general population, the better! Feels more sciency!!! Kinda like a boner pill for the "soft" sciences - keep 'em focused on the glorious "hard" work in the field!

    Obviously I am just a tad jaded and cynical about the Nobels...

  • DJMH says:

    Well, no NIGMS today--the only American was funded by Merck!

  • profduder says:

    I believe the committee deciding the Nobel Prize in Chemistry is going through a crisis.

    The landmark achievements in Chemistry over the past few decades are predominantly in the area of biological/biomedical research.

    This is not to say that nothing is happening in other areas of chemistry: physical, organic, theoretical/computational, and analytic. It's just that the past few decades there are probably 10 major discoveries in what would be called bio chemistry for every one in the other fields.

    Of course, they haven't ignored this revolution in bio-chemistry. Probably half the prizes in the pas few decades have gone to bio-chemistry related topics.

    It's just that there are hundreds of discoveries on basic cellular biochemistry that have gone unrecognized. These are discoveries that will be taught to students centuries from now.

    Instead, the committee continues to award prizes in other areas of chemistry that are certainly noteworthy, but probably won't be viewed as important a century from now.

    I've been on many committees, and I can imagine what happens on this one. You have people from a variety of backgrounds, and, if you don't have a strong chair of the committee, the loudest people drive the conversation. You end up with compromises and not always the ideal decision.

    I'm very interested to see what they select for chemistry this year.

    Also, for people in the history of these things. The Nobel Foundation has a database showing who nominated who for a prize. It only includes records 50+ years old.

    Here's my nomination for most regrettable nomination: http://www.nobelprize.org/nomination/archive/show_people.php?id=4220

  • […] response to my recent post regarding Nobel Prizes, a commenter suggested that comparing the number of winners of the Lasker Award for Clinical […]

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