Nobel Prizes: the fairy tale of science?

 cred: Akademie / Alamy

As a graduate student in neuroscience, I’ve sat through my fair share of science lectures. Aside from distracted students and enzyme cascades, a common recurring theme are Nobel Laureates. Time and time again we would be presented with a key concept and the experiments that led to its discovery, followed by a slide showing two or three smiling older men and a Nobel medal. That medal is included on PowerPoint slides to validate the lesson for the day and to give students something to aspire to. Seems pretty perfect, right? A lone genius would devise a theory, test it, walk away with a Nobel, and live happily ever after.

The problem is that this narrative fails dramatically at illustrating the way science is actually conducted. It doesn’t promote the critical thinking necessary for future scientists, and it alienates students that don’t see themselves represented in the pantheon of Nobel Laureates.

Every fall, the Nobel committee awards 3 prizes in science — for physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine — which are meant to recognize the most impactful discoveries in recent years. Each of these prizes can be awarded to up to three researchers who contributed to the discovery. Therein lies our first problem.

Rarely, if ever, is a Nobel-worthy discovery neatly attributable to only three people. By recognizing individuals rather than the team responsible for a breakthrough, the Nobel committee and lecturers highlighting only the winners are perpetuating the stereotype that scientists work alone, frantically scribbling on a chalkboard until they reach that eureka moment in a deserted lecture hall. However, in reality, science is a team sport. Not only does all research rest on a foundation of discoveries that preceded it, but most experiments are designed, performed, and interpreted in collaboration between many players — faculty, students and technicians alike. This collaboration is incredibly valuable and should be emphasized in the education of future scientists, not discounted as it is by the Nobel.

Furthermore, Nobel medals on PowerPoint slides serve as a symbol of legitimacy. If this experiment won a Nobel, then it must be correct, right? Well yes, this is usually the case, but to rely on that logic is lazy teaching. To be good scientists, students need to think critically. Accepting any finding because the Swedish academy or the editor of an academic journal “said so” could lead young scientists to base their own experiments on incorrect or incomplete assumptions. This practice gets even more irresponsible when a Nobel laureate, by virtue of his or her status, is automatically seen as a credible authority on subjects other than the one for which he or she was awarded the prize.

Finally, while seeing these photos of Nobel laureates can be aspirational for some, it can also be discouraging for others. Today, women earn roughly half of all undergraduate degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in the United States, but represent less than a third of the STEM workforce 1. This proportion gets even lower as we look at senior academics (those most often winning Nobels), to say nothing of the representation of people of color in these positions. Of the 607 people awarded Nobel prizes in chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine combined, only 20 (3%) were women 2. There are countless factors contributing to the ‘leaky pipeline’, a model that illustrates how women and people of color fall out of the STEM system at each step in the process as they ascend to more senior roles. A lack of representation in top positions is undoubtedly one of these factors. If we are repeatedly being shown that the best scientists don’t look anything like us, no wonder we feel discouraged from struggling over so many additional hurdles to stay in STEM.

All of this is not to say that a Nobel is not an incredible achievement. It is. And the prize itself accomplishes the important and often difficult goal of turning scientific discoveries into headlining news that the general public can engage with. It is, however, a somewhat flawed system. It is important for all science educators to think critically about the message that the inclusion of Nobel laureates in their lectures sends to their students. If it is worth mentioning those scientists that were officially recognized by the Nobel committee, it is likely also worth mentioning all the trainees, collaborators and technicians involved. If the work of a Nobel laureate is being presented that is not the work for which they won the prize, nothing is gained by highlighting their winner status. And finally, not only Nobel laureates merit having their faces on slides accompanying their experiments. If you are presenting any important work, show the faces behind the name, particularly if they are women or other underrepresented minorities in STEM.



Editors: Tezin Walji, Filipa Ferreira



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