WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO WIN THE BIG PRIZES IN SCIENCE?

 

There are easier ways to acquire a million dollars than winning a Nobel Prize or a Kavli Prize !!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)
There are easier ways to acquire a million dollars than winning a Nobel Prize or a Kavli Prize !!     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

 Most persons regard the Nobel Prize [1] and the Kavli Prize [2] as the very highest award any scientist can earn.  Only a handful of researchers ever win one of these supreme honors.  The 2014 awards for both Prizes recently were announced (see “The 2014 Nobel Prizes in Science are Announced!” and “The Kavli Prizes are Awarded for 2014!” ); an introductory background to these most prestigious awards was given in an earlier article (see “How do Research Scientists Become Very Famous?” ).  This essay looks at the characteristics of the 9 new awardees for each Prize, and discusses what conclusions can be drawn about which capabilities and activities let a scientist achieve such high renown.  

Key Features of the Nobel Prize and the Kavli Prize

Both Prizes aim to honor the most outstanding research scientists, but they also have a few significant differences.  The Novel Prize [1] was first awarded over a century ago, and uses a closed nomination process.  The Kavli Prize [2] is of very recent origin, and uses open nominations. The large financial reward offered to honorees by both Prizes is similar (i.e., about one million dollars for the prize in each topical area is divided between the several Laureates for any year.  Both Prizes feature week-long special festivities that include formal presentation of the awards to the Laureates by royalty from Sweden or Norway.

The Nobel or Kavli Prizes have prominently different coverages.  The Nobel Prize deals with areas in all fields of science (biology, chemistry, and physics), but the Kavli Prize is restricted to only consider astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience.  Selection of the Nobel Prize awardees therefore must evaluate many more candidate scientists annually.  For example, Nobel Laureates who surpass others in achieving supreme excellence of research in their topical area (e.g., mammalian endocrinology) also must have outscored those who have made an equivalent high level of accomplishments in many other subfields of biology.  That differs from the Kavli Laureates, who only have to surpass other scientists within their own topical discipline (e.g., nanoscience). 

Characteristics of the 2014 Laureates

All the new awardees for both Prizes [3,4] are dedicated and distinctive individuals researching for many years.  These scientists come from many different countries, reflecting the global nature of science.  All honorees are at least in their middle age, and the senior honorees are still conducting further investigations.  Both males and females are being honored as this year’s Laureates for both Prizes.  The greater number of male honorees reflects the larger number of male scientists currently conducting research in universities; since there now are more females than males studying in graduate school, this will lead to many more female honorees in the future. In some cases research work of the new Laureates already has led to commercial  products put into widespread daily use (e.g., light bulbs with emitting diodes that produce white light). 

The subjects the 2014 awardees work on are diverse, but 2 areas of study, memory in the brain, and, theoretical and applied optics for imaging, are common to both Prizes this year.  Two of the new Laureates, Prof. John O’Keefe and Prof. Stefan W. Hell, even won both Prizes [3,4].  These 2 award programs thus have consistent criteria for selecting topical areas and the awardees.  This convergence of judgment counters the common criticism of the Nobel Prizes for not being appreciative of modern and novel subject areas.   This also suggests that producing dramatic new findings and working in a hot area having widespread investigations by other scientists can increase the chance of winning these Prizes.  

One might think that the attention of the Kavli Prizes given to very large and modern topical areas would produce more awards to younger scientists.  The 2014 awards show no evidence for this presumption; most new Kavli Laureates have researched for decades.  This is easier to understand if one realizes that progress in scientific research flows and advances in a progression, such that supreme accomplishments often result from important contributions and extensions made by many other scientists after the major initial  discovery by one individual.  

Both the Nobel and Kavli Prizes typically select to honor 2-3 different individual scientists working in the same topical area.  All 3 usually are well-known to each other, but they need not be direct collaborators.  The policy of selecting only a few awardees for each topical area also means that one research scientist doing very meritorious work as an individual in an area where few others are researching might become quite famous, but does not have the momentum needed to win one of these Prizes. If we look at the early history of the Nobel Prize in science, some single Laureates are found (see complete list of all Nobel Laureates on the internet at:  http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/facts/ ).  

Common Questions about the Nobel and Kavli Prizes

Non-scientists often wonder if earning one of these supreme awards is an outcome that can be planned?  My impression is that the glory of winning a Nobel or Kavli Prize mostly is not directly sought and usually is a dramatic surprise to the awardees.  The Laureates, just like most other research scientists, simply strive to do meritorious investigations, find answers to important research questions, get their research grants renewed, and thereby become famous; both the most famous researchers and all other scientists are very aware that only a small handful of scientists can ever win either Prize.  Characteristics of the 2014 Laureates suggest that one promising strategy for success is to try to obtain breakthrough results in an area of intense importance, and to stimulate an increasing number of other scientists and engineers to undertake research studies in the same topical area. 

Another common question is why there never are more than 3 awardees for the Prize in each topical area?  The answer is that the administrators of the Nobel and Kavli Prizes impose this restriction.  That stringent limitation certainly elevates the prestigious character of these awards.  Sometimes this same policy unfortunately causes awarding one Prize to only half of a 2-person team, even where both are widely believed by many other scientists to have made equivalent contributions and to be very equally meritorious.  

A frequent criticism about the Nobel Prizes is that they mostly honor only very senior scientists.  Nevertheless, the youngest winner of a Nobel Prize in science (1915), Lawrence Bragg, was only 25 years old [5].  The limited number of Nobel or Kavli Prizes awarded also produces the result that some very meritorious senior scientists might die before any award is bestowed.  It is not publically known whether the 2-3 awardees or the topical area is selected first for either Prize

A substantial number of Nobel Prizes in science have been awarded for research on certain subjects, e.g., cholesterol, crystallography, and subatomic particles.  Why is this?  These areas and methods influence multiple other research subjects, and so have a wider impact and importance than do many others; as one example, research on cholesterol involves biochemistry, biology, biophysics, clinical medicine, methodology, pathology, pharmacology, and physiology. 

Concluding Remarks

Looking at the 2014 version of the Nobel and Kavli Prizes, I can draw 5 general conclusions: (1) one individual scientist no longer is selected as the exclusive winner, and no more than 3 persons are honored with an annual  Prize in any topical area, (2) more senior scientists than younger workers are selected for these awards, and no Prize can be given to deceased scientists, (3) basic scientific research can be honored particularly where applied science and engineering developments have subsequently amplified and solidified these large advances, (4) theoretical science can be honored where this is modified and subsequently extended by other researchers, such that the theory becomes consistent with ongoing studies and is widely applicable, and (5) there is no general formula assuring earning the award of either supreme honor, and thus a certain amount of good luck also is needed to become a Laureate.

Several new types of science awards with gigantic c ash prizes recently have been established.  Their nature and distinctions will be described and discussed in the subsequent article. 

[1] Nobel Prizes, 2014.  Nobel Prize facts.  Available on the internet at: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/facts/ . 

[2] The Kavli Prize, 2014.   About the (Kavli) Prize.   Available on the internet at:  http://www.kavliprize.org/about / .

[3] Nobel Prizes, 2014.  Nobel Prizes 2014.  Available on the internet at:   http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/lists/year/index.html .

[4] Kavli Foundation, 2014.  The Kavli Prize 2014 Laureates.  Available on internet at:
http://www.kavlifoundation.org/2014-kavli-prize.  

[5] Nobel Prizes, 2014.  Nobel Laureates by age.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/lists/age.html .  

 

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