The Nobel Prize is one of the most coveted accolades in academia, evolving from a Swedish philanthropist’s way of honouring those who have benefited humanity with their discoveries to one of mainstays of academic achievement, especially in the sphere of medicine.
Indeed, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has graced the laboratories of many Canadian scientists (most famously Frederick Banting for his discovery of insulin, and more recently Ralph Steinman for his “discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity”).
The most recently awarded Prize celebrates a fundamental sense that we often take for granted in our daily lives. Dr. David Julius and Dr. Ardem Patapoutian shared the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.” Indeed, while we had a conceptual idea of how important detecting cold, heat, touch – and most importantly, pain – was to our survival, the molecular basis of these senses were still a mystery. Julius’ discovery of the TRPV1 gene that is sensitive to capsaicin (the chemical that gives peppers their “spicy” taste) and Patapoutian’s discovery of mechanosensitive “Piezo” proteins together kicked off a vibrant research field, greatly improving our understanding of touch and temperature sensations. Moreover, it has provided a baseline for better understanding of molecular mechanisms behind pain, with the hopes of finding new treatments for pain and related conditions.
However, the awarding of this and other Nobel Prizes in 2021 reignited what has been a touchy subject in science – the issue of adequate representation.
In his will, Alfred Nobel noted: “It is my express wish that when awarding the prizes, no consideration be given to nationality, but that the prize be awarded to the worthiest person, whether or not they are Scandinavian.”
Although these words imply that the Nobel Prize is awarded solely based on merit and scientific achievements, the demographics of awardees has made it apparent that many diverse individuals are being left out as contenders.
The Nobel Prize has existed for more than 100 years. During this time, there has been much critique of the Nobel Prize selection process on the lack of diversity and representation among its recipients. For example, between 1901 and 2021, only 59 women have been awarded the Nobel Prize compared to a staggering 888 men that have won. More than half of the awards given to women were within roughly the last 20 years. In 2021, no woman received the award, which caused some turmoil within the scientific community.
In an article written for Nature, Goran Hansson, the secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy in Science, stated that progress toward diversification is moving slowly and that science needs more women in higher positions with the resources to make scientific breakthroughs that can be recognized by the Nobel selection committee. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Institute for Statistics, less than 30 per cent of the world’s researchers are women.
But lack of diversity does not just stop at gender. Racial diversity is lacking even more than gender diversity. There has only been one male black recipient of the Nobel Prize, in 1979 when W. Arthur Lewis won for his work in economics. In 2015, Tu Youyou, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine, was the only recipient to be a woman of colour. Geographically, the majority of winners have been from Western nations.
It’s unknown how many discoveries are being missed out on by neglecting to nominate researchers that come from diverse backgrounds.
The problem of homogeneity in awardees leads to doubts about whether efforts are truly being made to improve this disparity. As stated by Kelsey Johnson, an astronomer at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, it’s unknown how many ideas and discoveries are being missed out on by neglecting to nominate or award researchers that come from diverse backgrounds.
One possible driver to the lack of diversity is the nomination process itself. Abdel El Manira, a member of the Nobel committee, told us that “all former Nobel Prize winners have the right to nominate; all professors in medicine in the Scandinavian universities have the right to nominate; and then there are different academies and different institutions that are invited to nominate potential candidates.”
However, nominators are generally dictated by “… by virtue of their academic positions or memberships of national academies…”, which may constrain the diversity of nominators that contribute. Typically, Nobel Prizes are granted to full-fledged professors at prestigious universities. Women and minority groups occupy few tenure-track positions in institutions, which may contribute to the smaller pool of suitable women and minority candidates for this award.
According to a 2019 Nature article, the Nobel committee has taken steps to improve diversity by encouraging nominators to take into consideration gender, geography, and topic. Since 2019, a larger group of scientists and institutions have been invited to participate in the nomination process in hopes that nominators from a variety of backgrounds will recognize the efforts of a more diverse group.
Though these are small steps and did not impact the 2021 awards, there is hope that these changes will inch us closer to increasing diversity amongst the Nobel recipients. Some of the more radical changes that have been suggested, including introducing quotas for minority groups. However, this has drawn considerable criticism as implementing quotas sparks the question of whether the prize is won because of its impact in the scientific world or because it meets the designated quota for that year.
Rose Hill, a postdoctoral fellow in Patapoutian’s lab, joyfully described to us the moment she and her lab mates were notified of winning the Nobel Prize. “We were all incredibly, I mean pleasantly so, but incredibly surprised. Being on the West Coast and the award being in Europe, we were actually awoken by a group text from a lab member at around 2 or 3 a.m. And it just said …check the news, check this website. And that’s how we found out and it was just such a crazy whirlwind day. We’ve all been extremely, extremely happy for (Patapoutian) and for everyone in the lab who contributed to that work.”
There are likely many scientists out there that dream to experience what Hill and her teammates did when they found out they were awarded the Nobel Prize. In due time, we hope that scientists from underrepresented communities also will feel as if their work will be recognized fairly.
To learn more about under-representation in STEM fields and aspects of the Nobel Prize, we invite you to check out our episodes #103 (Underrepresentation in STEM) and #107 (Unravelling the Nobel Prize and Touch Sensations). Also, do check out the links embedded in this article, as well as some interesting resources the teams have compiled in the episodes’ show notes, wherever you get your podcasts.
We would like to acknowledge our contributors to Raw Talk Podcast’s episodes #103 (“Underrepresentation in STEM”) and #107 (“Unravelling the Nobel Prize and Touch Sensations”). Rachel, Daniel, Swapna, and Michelle were our Show Hosts; Kiko, Atefeh, and Angela were our Content Creators; Alex and Anukrati were our Audio Engineers; Noor was our Co-Executive Producer and Yagnesh was our Advisor.