December 3, 2003 | David F. Coppedge

Editorial: The Cult of the Prize

In a letter to the editor in the Dec. 4 issue of Nature1, historian Robert Marc Friedman (U. of Oslo) asks, “Is science losing out in the race for recognition?”  The race for honors, he feels, is diminishing science:

Raymond Damadian’s public dispute (see “Physician launches public protest over medical Nobel” Nature 425, 648; 2003) should make us ask whether science is best served by a culture obsessed with rankings and winning prizes.  The history of the Nobel Prize makes it clear that the medallion is etched with human frailties.

Friedman alleges that the Nobel Prize does not necessarily correlate with achievement.  It is a decision made by one Swedish committee whose “predilections and interests necessarily enter into their deliberations” and influence their judgments.  As an example, “Academy physicists had no intention of recognizing Einstein’s theories of relativity,” he claims, quoting them, “‘even if the whole world demands it.’”
    He also points out that the decisions are very difficult to make, when often many individuals are deserving but only a few can be chosen.  Consequently, “There are no grounds for assuming that the laureates constitute a unique population of the very best in science.”  Furthermore, he continues, “Let us not forget that some important branches of science are not addressed by Nobel’s testament.  Some of the greatest intellectual triumphs of the past century have not been celebrated in Stockholm.”
    Friedman calls the annual Nobel frenzy “the cult of the prize” and claims the media, who whipped up frenzy about it from the start, are largely responsible.  “Leaders of national scientific communities willingly climbed on the bandwagon,” he adds, “and over time the number of parties with a stake in maintaining the cult of the prize has grown.”

Damadian’s campaign to have a share in the prize for his work on developing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a product of a scientific culture based on competition for personal and institutional aggrandizement.  Whatever Alfred Nobel might have meant when he set up prizes for those whose work conferred “the greatest benefit on mankind”, he did not have in mind the promotion of narrow professional interests, nor institutional and national boosterism.

He rhetorically asks, in conclusion, “Should racing to discovery define the soul of science?  Its heritage is far richer than the quest for prizes might suggest.”

1Robert Marc Friedman, “Is science losing out in the race for recognition?”, Nature 426, 495 (04 December 2003); doi:10.1038/426495a.

Be that as it may, Damadian knew that in our culture, the Nobel Prize constitutes a quasi-official roster of the greatest discoverers in science.  Textbook writers, historians, and teachers are wont to take the 2003 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine as the authoritative statement on who discovered MRI.  For a man whose entire adult life has been consumed with medical MRI, and whose initial discovery in the lab made it all possible, it was understandable for him to try to head off at the pass the revisionism he sees coming.  We can all pitch in by writing letters, as one of our readers did, to papers and magazines that forget the facts.  He told Science News,

“Nobel prizes go to scientists harnessing odd phenomena” (SN: 10/11/03, p. 229: didn’t include even a hint about the controversy about the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.  Many people believe that Raymond Damadian should have gotten at least a share in the prize.  Damadian saw and demonstrated the potential for using MRI as a medical-scanning technique when others found the idea laughable.

    Friedman does not excuse or endorse Damadian’s media campaign, but rightly points out that we need to get our attention off prizes.  Not every great athlete wins Olympic gold, nor every great author a Pulitzer.  In science, especially, prizes should not be the metric for esteem.  We don’t remember Newton for awards won, or Kelvin for honorary doctorates.  We remember them for what they accomplished: uncovering nature’s laws.  If scientists become motivated to win prizes instead of explore the workings of nature, we will all suffer.
    We can begin by individually paying less attention to prizes.  I have learned that a PhD still needs to earn my respect, not claim it by pointing to the numbers of letters after his name.  After all, do we not regularly read of PhDs making the most ridiculous statements right here in these pages?  Don’t tell me how many college classes you took and how many plaques you have on your wall (maybe your dad had more money to send you to an ivy-league school); show me by your deeds and the wisdom of your words that you deserve my respect.  Some PhDs are clueless; some unlettered men are peerless.  (Faraday and Joule come to mind.)  If you have a degree, consider it a ticket to do great things, not a scepter to make people bow down to you, or a laurel to let wither on the shelf.
    The other two winners of this year’s prize may get plaques on their walls, and some dough, but those are quickly forgotten.  If we let achievement measure greatness, then Damadian’s prize will also be mounted where it belongs.  It will be inscribed every day in detailed anatomical images, posted on hospital walls around the world, that will guide surgeons to accurately diagnose and operate on their patients.  Because of this near-magical technology he invented, that can see below the skin without a knife, his prize will be written in smiling faces of millions whose lives have been spared.  That’s a prize that’s priceless.
For background on the Damadian controversy, see the Oct. 10 headline.

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Categories: Politics and Ethics

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