As a senior scientist, I have much experience with prizes. I have served on several prize juries, and I have been fortunate to receive a number of prizes together with my scientific partner Joe Goldstein. Sometimes I am asked, “What is the purpose of scientific prizes? Do they benefit science or just the few scientists who receive them?” Here are my views on science prizes.
Let’s begin with two things that science prizes are not. First, they are not goals. They differ from Olympic medals or Super Bowl rings. In sports, the goal is to win the prize. If you don’t finish first, you are a loser. In science the goal is to discover truth — prizes are a pleasant afterthought.
Some scientists confuse science with sports. They choose a trendy, competitive scientific field, and they plan their experiments with an eye on the prize. “If I can solve the next problem in this field, I am sure to win a (fill in the blank) prize.” These scientists compete for the notoriety of publishing in ‘high profile’ journals where their work will be widely viewed and may even elicit a laudatory commentary. They flock to repetitive scientific meetings with the same attendees where they expand their contacts and profile. I pity these outwardly driven scientists. Lacking an internal reward system, they depend entirely on the approval of others. Even if they make a fundamental discovery, they consider themselves failures if their discovery is not recognized with prizes.
Other scientists are inwardly driven. They are motivated by a passion to answer a question that burns inside of them. Even if no one else considers the question important, the inwardly driven scientist cannot rest until he or she obtains the answer. The answer invariably leads to more questions, so inwardly driven scientists pursue the problem into ever deeper layers. Eventually they reach a fundamental level whose ramifications extend much further than the original problem. Recent examples include the scientists who became fascinated with odd repeat sequences in bacterial genomes, later to find that they constituted the bacterial immune system — work that led to the CRISPR-Cas9 technology for gene manipulation in mammals. Other inwardly directed scientists studied the circadian rhythm of pupal hatching in fruit flies, the reproductive practices of hermaphroditic roundworms, or the strange basis of fluorescence in jellyfish — all work that led to profound and general biologic insights.
Scientific prizes are not declarations of genius, despite their public perception. Most prizes recognize the discovery — not the discoverer. The selection committee first decides whether a certain discovery is sufficiently significant to merit a prize. Then they try to identify the scientist(s) who made the discovery. Contrary to popular belief, the jury makes no statement about the intelligence, or even the creativity, of the discoverer. They state simply that he or she has contributed to an important discovery. Admittedly, the average prize-winning scientist is somewhat above average in intelligence when compared with other scientists, but few are near the top. The Nobel Foundation maintains a book of signatures by all previous Nobel laureates. Signing the same book as Albert Einstein does not make one an Einstein.
Complicating the interpretation of their significance, some prizes limit the recipients to three in any single category. The Nobel Foundation initiated this practice many years ago. As scientific fields have expanded, many of the most revolutionary discoveries result from the culmination of efforts by many scientists. In such cases the prize cannot be awarded. Sometimes it is delayed until some of the contributors die, reducing the eligible number to three. For scientific prizes, longevity is a prerequisite.
If competition for prizes creates false motives for scientists and false idols for the public, why do we have them? In my opinion, prizes are beneficial because they show the world that society values scientific discovery. When the President of the United States welcomes American Nobel laureates to the White House, the gesture elevates scientists to nearly the same status as NCAA basketball champions. The resulting publicity may inspire young people to realize that science is a valued endeavor. Of course, we must temper this ambition by explaining that they must first discover something. Prizes are the dessert, not the entrée.
Scientific prizes are beneficial because they immortalize the name of the grantor. Without his prize, Alfred Nobel would barely be remembered as the inventor of dynamite, and Albert Lasker would be the man who coined the phrase “Quaker Oats: Shot from Guns.” The Lasker Awards pay lasting tribute to the vision of Albert and Mary Lasker that biomedical research is key to achieving better health for us all.
When prize juries do their homework carefully, they grant public recognition to scientists who discover truth, even the inwardly directed scientists who labored in obscurity. By the time a discovery gains widespread recognition many scientists will have made contributions. The jury must dig through the published literature to identify the few scientists whose initial observations created the field. Frequently, the key figure will be an inwardly directed scientist whose work was compelled only by a search for truth. The contributions of this pioneer may have been lost in the swirl of activity that follows a fundamental discovery. Many people will have inserted bricks into the scientific edifice. Prize juries must see past the laborers to identify the architect, and then they must tell the whole story of how the building was conceived and built.
On balance, I believe that prizes are beneficial to science and to the public that relies on science to solve the many problems facing us. The limitations of prizes must be appreciated by the scientists who earn them and the public who applauds them. Let us hope that society continues to reward the pioneers of science.