More Nobels…or better reporting?

An op-ed in the New York Times made the suggestion that the Nobel Prizes need to be updated for where groundbreaking science is taking place.  The notion is that there is a lot of science that is every bit as important as that of the Nobel winners, but they are kept out of the papers because the Nobel criteria are too limiting.

This is fine as far as it goes, but there is another way of looking at this. There are top awards within different disciplines, but the news media pay them nearly no mind at all. Take for instance the closest approximation to the Nobel in earth science, the Crafoord Prize.  It is the same organization that chooses the winner (the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) and they have pomp and ceremony  and a big check and all that, but this award gets very little attention. In geoscience the award is only every four years (they cycle through some other disciplines), so it is arguably more restrictive.  It does tend to be rewarding careers more than individual discoveries, but it is kind of on a similar track. The media could just decide to pay attention to that to help cover this bias.

Of course there are a whole bunch of other prizes and medals and awards kicking about if you really want to go there. In some ways the Nobels are kind of the equivalent of the Olympics, a chance to marvel at something you ignore all the rest of the time. Some of the other sciences that are suggested as worthy additions to the Nobel lineup might be more like football or baseball: you pay attention to weather forecasts and earthquake reports and such-not on a daily basis, and climate change and fracking and mining and extinctions are issues that the public does engage in. So maybe the public attention these other fields get makes up for not having their practitioners getting high profile prizes? (OK, so this doesn’t work for biology, which is quite high profile and has a Nobel prize). Just a thought.

(As an aside, just why were the Nobel Prizes awarded the distinction of being newsworthy, anyways?)


3 responses to “More Nobels…or better reporting?”

  1. Anonymous Reader says :

    Hi, long time occasional reader, first time commenting! I would say that the media is only going to report on topics that give them the most ad revenue. This is just how incentives are set up these days. The public will not care about the Crafoord Prize because it simply doesn’t have the cultural inertia that the Nobel Prize carries… and in this day and age, giving this prize more media attention won’t change that.

    Furthermore, the existence of Nobel prizes in certain fields definitely does something to attract the top and brightest minds to that field.


    • cjonescu says :

      Thanks for the comment. You may be right that media coverage might never get the Crafoord or other such awards to a similar level to Nobels, but it might be worth a shot. I never thought of Nobel Prizes as a means of attracting people to the field. I can imagine prizes inspiring the more ambitious people, but I am not sure they are the “best and brightest”. Given how publicity and money has led bioscience into dealing with a lot of cheating and fraud, it isn’t clear to me that awards actually help a field…


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  1. Geoscience Nobels? | The Grumpy Geophysicist - October 5, 2016

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