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.