Can we predict which biologists are likely to win a Nobel Prize?

The positive feedback loop of awards, citations, and historical contingencies greatly favors certain demographics over others.

Kyle Siegel
Oct 10, 2019 · 8 min read

The first full week of October can be an exciting time for those in STEM. While the leaves change colors, a few select scientists, authors, activists, and economists will receive calls congratulating them on winning a Nobel Prize.

Established in the will of chemist and inventor Alfred Nobel in 1895, the Nobel Prize is arguably considered the highest honor in its six disciplines. The original Nobel Prize fields include: Chemistry, Literature, Peace, Physics, and Physiology or Medicine. The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences, commonly called the Nobel Prize in Economics, was established in 1968 by a large donation from Swedish national bank to the Nobel Foundation.

The medal given with the Nobel Prize. Source: nobelprize.org

Each day this week, new Nobel laureates are announced. On Monday, 10/7/2019, the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology was jointly awarded to William G. Kaelin, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe, and Gregg L. Semenza for discoveries in how cells respond and adapt to low levels of oxygen. The other awards will be announced in the subsequent days for the Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace, and Economic Sciences.

Given the modern prestige and pomp of the Nobel Prize, many media outlets attempt to produce a shortlist of those in the running for that year’s prize. The humanistic Prizes, Literature and Peace, are notoriously difficult to predict (despite the Peace Prize having a comparatively transparent selection process). Even Ladbrokes, a betting company who applies wager statistics to gamble on who will be the next Nobel laureate in Literature, is glaringly wrong in their predictions. This begs the question, “Is there any way to determine who is more likely to win a Nobel Prize in their discipline?”

While the answer is complicated (especially based on the nomination process and changing definitions in the Prize’s criteria), there are some positive indicators for the prizes in the natural sciences. Looking at the positive feedback loop of awards and citation culture is a powerful way to determine who’s “competitive” for a Nobel, especially in the field of Medicine or Physiology.

As a biologist, the Prize in Medicine or Physiology is arguably ‘closest’ to my heart. Since the Prize’s inception, 211 scientists have been named laureates. Topics of the awardees run the gamut of biology. For example, Prizes in the past three years have been awarded for research in the aforementioned mechanisms of oxygen sensing (2019), cancer immunotherapy and its powerful applications (2018), and the genetics of circadian rhythms that underlie animal behavior (2017). Each of these three topics all arise from seemingly different subsets of biology. I could roughly categorize each as cell biology, immunology, and neurobiology, respectively. How, then, can one even begin to guess that individuals from disparate research topics, like James P. Allison (2018) and Michael Rosbash (2017), would win a Nobel?

Awards and titles begets more awards (and titles)

Previously winning prestigious awards is a sure-fire way to be in the running for a Nobel Prize. One key example in the biological sciences is the Lasker Award, given annually to individual’s who make significant contributions to biomedical research and public health. The Lasker Award is sometimes called the ‘American Nobel,’ and with good reason: 88 previous winners of the Lasker Award have gone on to become Nobel laureates. Strikingly, the new 2019 laureates in Medicine & Physiology jointly won the Lasker Award back in 2016, for the same body of research. Immunologist James P. Allison won the Lasker Award the year before receiving the Nobel Prize. While winning the Lasker Award is by no means a guarantee for winning a Nobel, the likelihood of a biologist receiving a Nobel Prize seems to be positively correlated with winning a Lasker Award beforehand or concurrently.

Simply, awards beget more awards. While the 2017 laureates did not win a Lasker Award for their fundamental contributions to chronobiology, they did win both the prestigious Gruber Prizer in Neuroscience in 2009, and the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences, for the same body of work. Winning previous awards can be indicators of who is likely to, at least, be nominated to the Nobel committee.

Relatedly, the Nobel long and short list is determined by nominations from individuals who are members of prestigious academic societies. In the U.S., this might include institutions like the American Academy of Arts and Sciences or the National Academy of Sciences. Many laureates in Medicine or Physiology are members of both institutions prior to winning the Nobel. Reviewing the American laureates in Physiology or Medicine since 2000, all laureates were inducted into the National Academy of Sciences at least one year prior to receipt of their Nobel. While not necessarily a prerequisite for winning a Nobel Prize, membership in elite academic societies, and the titles afforded, can provide a direct line to getting on the Nobel short list.

Citation Laureates; or, winning the numbers games

Plot displaying how the h-index is calculated. The h-index provides a rough measure of how “influential” a scientist is, based on how many citations each of their published papers receives. Graph: BiteSizeBio.com

Quantitative metrics have also been applied to try to predict potential Nobel laureates in STEM. The Web of Science Group runs a virtual Hall of Citation Laureates for all Nobel disciplines. The success of a Citation Laureate can be boiled down to three main factors:

  1. Their frequency of publication;
  2. The prestige of the journals where their articles are published, often called the ‘journal impact factor;’
  3. How many citations each paper receives, which can be reformatted into a calculable h-index approximating the quality versus quantity of a scientist’s research output.

Based on these academic measurements of success, the Web of Science Group can then make predictions about who’s influential in the field, and therefore more likely to win a Nobel Prize.

Do quantitative awards, like becoming a ‘Citation Laureate,’ actually work in predicting future Nobel laureates in the sciences? More often than one might expect. Since the moniker’s start in 2002, 50 Citation Laureates across all disciplines have correctly gone on to win a Nobel Prize. Citation and impact factor are controversial measurements of academic success, to say the least. However, contextualizing how a biologist’s research has informed subsequent work is important in better understanding that individual’s effect on science. Citations and the h-index, as they stand, can be one metric of determining this impact.

So? Can we predict a potential Nobel laureate through previous awards and academic metrics?

At best: maybe. Annual awards, like the Nobel Prize, are at the discretion of the factors I’ve mentioned, but also the historical contingencies taken by previous Prizes and the scientific community as a whole. Since three researchers in the field of cell biology and physiology won in 2019, the awardees for 2020 will most likely not be in the same field. Similarly, the chances aren’t high for immunologists to receive the award in 2020, since two immunologists received the 2018 Prize. The winning subdiscipline in biology effectively rotates each year, adding another layer of complexity to predictions.

It’s worth noting that, for the 2019 laureates, most of the major papers on hypoxia that won them the Nobel (and the Lasker) were originally published in prestigious journals between 1995 and 2001- approximately two decades before receiving the Nobel. So, time seems to also be a factor in determining who will win a Nobel Prize. Jennifer Doudna, pioneer in genome editing techniques through extensive research on CRISPR/Cas9, published her group’s seminal paper describing the system in 2012. While CRISPR/Cas9 technology is revolutionary for research and medicine, a few more years might be needed before Dr. Doudna receives a Nobel Prize.

It’s a man’s man’s world

Still, all of these details suggest that awards systems like the Nobel are heavily biased towards scientists who can obtain accolades and academic recognition. Reviewing the previous laureates for Physiology/Medicine, Chemistry, Physics, Economics, and Literature (where the prizes are awarded to individuals, unlike the Peace Prize), a clear trend emerges. Regardless of discipline, the vast majority of Nobel laureates are men (Fig. 1). Not surprisingly, the history of science has not been kind to its women champions. While women have made incredible contributions to science, across disciplines, most of these trailblazers have only recently been linked to their accomplishments; who knows how many have been lost to antiquity now.

Fig. 1. Percentage of men versus women Nobel laureates for each discipline in which individuals are recognized (as of 10/10/2019). n values indicate the total number of laureates for each discipline. Data obtained from the Nobel website. The disparity in recognition along the lines of biological sex is readily apparent.

The history of biology is rife with women doing incredible science, and subsequently receiving no formal recognition for their work. Rosalind Franklin provided the quantitative data and images needed to support the double helix model for DNA. In lieu of a Nobel Prize, she had her data shown to James Watson and Francis Crick without her permission, eventually winning the duo, along with Franklin’s former advisor Maurice Wilkins, the prize in 1962. Franklin tragically passed away in 1958, thus precluding her from receiving a Nobel, but allowing her to be typecast as the ‘dark lady of DNA’ in Watson’s “tell-all” biography The Double Helix. Our understanding of the structure of the molecule that holds the code of life would have been impossible without Franklin’s work, yet her contributions remained obscured and besmirched.

Similarly, Hilde Mangold carried out experiments in the early 20th century that formed the basis for modern embryology, or the study of how an embryo becomes a fully-formed organism. Although her experiments were pivotal in our understanding of how the three germ layers in animals are established from a single, fertilized egg, Mangold received little credit for her work. She was even supplanted as primary author on her publication by her advisor, future Nobel laureate Hans Spemann.

Even more recently, take the geneticist Evelyn Witkin. Witkin’s research addressed how organisms can repair their damaged DNA, like from breaks incurred by exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Her experiments with E. coli brought science fundamental insights as to how mutations can arise in our genetic code. Her work has profound implications for diverse topics, from the genetics underlying evolution by natural selection, to how cancerous cells are formed. Witkin has eventually won prestigious awards, including the Lasker in 2015, and has been a member of elite academic institutions since the late 1970s. It’s surprising that someone so accomplished in their work has not been recognized with a Nobel Prize for their contributions to basic biology.

Awards like the Nobel Prize are, idealistically, given for significant contributions to our understanding of the natural world through research. At the end of the day, the work and the joy it spawns should be the most important part. However, for the game-changing contributions of scientists like Jennifer Doudna, Rosalind Franklin, Hilde Mangold, Evelyn Witkin, and the masses of trainees and collaborations who actually carry out the research, recognition by an award like the Nobel is a strong way to say, “Anyone and everyone can do rigorous, informative, breathtaking science. Let their achievements be known for posterity!”

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Join The Startup’s +724K followers.

Kyle Siegel

Written by

New Jersey grown, Midwest-based. Interested in the history and narratives of science, culture, and their intersection.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store