The 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry will soon (early October) be awarded amid the usual speculation, angst, disagreement and elation — but Nature Chemistry’s October Editorial (Nat. Chem. 1, 509; 2009) asks whether it is really worth all the fuss? The Editorial begins:
“Imagine a world where Christmas comes once a year, but only to one, two or three boys or girls who have been especially good. All the other well-behaved children receive no gifts, and those lucky few who were chosen become the centre of attention and no longer have time to do the chores that led to them being picked out in the first place. Not to mention that some of the other children are now a little jealous of the presents and the attention bestowed on their former playmates. Wouldn’t that be a shame?
Of course, many more children are given Christmas presents every year, but the Nobel Prize Committee cannot be so generous. The rules of the Nobel Foundation — the private institution that administers the award of the Nobel Prizes — stipulate that each prize can be awarded to only one, two or three individuals.”
After considering the aims of the prize in the years since it was first created, and reviewing some of the more contentious decisions, the Editorial concludes that science in Alfred Nobel’s time was a pursuit of a few individuals, “a far cry from the worldwide endeavour of modern research groups. Giving a prize to all the people who have contributed to a scientific advance — integrating the curve of work from summer students to group leaders — would be fairer, but less likely to generate easily digestible headlines.
And that is where the Nobel Prize is of great benefit to science — rather than individual scientists. The day of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry announcement is the one day of the year that chemistry is guaranteed to generate headlines, and positive ones at that.”