Alfred Nobel’s will established the Nobel Prize in 1895 with four initial categories: Chemistry, Peace, Physics, and Physiology or Medicine. The Literature category was created in 1901. The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences is actually not a part of the Nobel Foundation prizes, but is awarded by Sweden’s central bank in memory of Alfred Nobel.
This year’s prizes were awarded for diverse topics, such as “discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy,” in the Physiology or Medicine category, to “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” awarded to Bob Dylan in Literature. But with all of these awards, a maximum number of three people were mentioned in each category.
Limiting the Nobel prize to three people per award type follows the guidelines of the award, but ignores the current reality. Modern science is done in teams, and while some members of a team may work harder than others, attributing the discovery to three people out of two teams totalling 51 scientists, as was done in the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, is problematic. The other 48 researchers on those teams, in that instance, made equally important contributions, but will not receive the recognition that comes with winning the prize.
With the designation as a Nobel Prize winner immediately comes more recognition for your field or research. Professor Kurt Wuthrich, a 2002 Chemistry Laureate, noted “it certainly made it easier for me to establish collaborations I was interested in.” 2011 Physics winner Brian Schmidt believed it “has given me a voice that I can use on behalf of science.”
Additionally, the amount of money awarded with each prize for 2016 is 8.0 million Swedish kroner (about $900,000). This money can be used to fund additional research, which, while it may not win you the Nobel prize a second time (as only four people have been multiple Nobel Laureates), can be a much needed boost for expensive research without having to endure a grant-writing process.
The Nobel Foundation could extend the three person limit to count three organizations. This approach is not prohibited by the statues of the Foundation. In fact, the Nobel Peace Prize has long been awarded to organizations, with some, like the International Committee of the Red Cross, being recipients multiple times. Such a decision could be reflected in the sciences award, with a team being a recipient, instead of three people from that team.
Modern science is no longer built around individuals or small teams making big breakthroughs. Instead, modern scientists have become more specialized, which leads to a greater need for collaboration. As our knowledge in different fields has grown, keeping up with a field has become an increasing investment, so that the modern scientist is more likely to focus on a narrow topic compared to previous generations of scientists. Large teams, then, are necessary to answer important questions and those answers might lead to a Nobel prize. In 1960, for instance, the average number of authors on a science or engineering article was 1.9. In 2013, that number had risen to 5.4.
A study done by Robert Aboukhalil with the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory showed that authorship has increased five-fold since 1913, and predicted that by 2034, the average number of authors on a publication would be 8. Journals have started trying to ensure all authors made significant contributions to the paper. The Nobel Foundation could use a similar model to ensure equal, or at least significant, contributions were made by others on a large team. But this increasing trend highlights the need for change. If more scientists are involved in answering a question, because each are specialists in their own right and field, then the Nobel Foundation needs to change with the times, acknowledging that things are not the same as they were in 1901.
What outsider can decide who should get the most credit? With a group project done by students at a university, professors often assume that everyone contributed equally, and award the same grade to all. The committee might need to be more discriminating than that; perhaps act like the professor who asks for each student to grade his or her fellow students’ contributions to the project. But continuing to use the system of only allowing three people to win ignores how the organization of science has changed.