What does a Nobel Prize look for?

Nobel Prize is often noted as the highest accolade in natural and economic sciences, but one must not associate prize winning work as the defining chapter in human knowledge and literacy. Awarded in the areas of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, peace, economic sciences and literature, it celebrates work in exploration of the natural world and humanities that have far-reaching consequences for humanity across the world, in all races and religions.


Hence, to most people, a Nobel Prize means something and is a symbol of a life’s work. However, recent awards in specific fields have raised eyebrows in many people concerning the validity of the award in relation to the quality of work performed, and impact on society since promulgation of the research findings.


Specifically, in accordance to the will of Alfred Nobel who set up a foundation to fund the annual award of prizes in the natural and economic sciences as well as literature, the prize is for basic (or fundamental) discoveries in science with far-reaching implications to the future development of knowledge as well as its application to daily life. While discoveries of basic laws seldom translate to applications over a short period of time, application potential of a research finding does factor in the Nobel selection committee’s thinking during the nomination and deliberation process before prize award. Nevertheless, application potential of a finding usually takes second place compared to the impact of the basic discovery on the future developmental trajectory of science.


Nominated by scientists around the world, potential winners of the prize in specific fields are screened at various levels that culminates in a final deliberation process by a committee of subject matter experts familiar with the work (and their associated contextual background) of all final nominees. Such a final selection process steeped with discussions and deliberations help provide a more robust system, for award of such a high caliber award that frequently have major impact on the life journey of prize winners.


Casting a backward glance over past awards, my personal view is that development of liquid crystals display technology may not be worthy of a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Specifically, while liquid crystal display technology is omnipresent in almost all displays now, its discovery cannot be described as a fundamental or basic discovery at the same level of long lasting impact, as the discovery of the General theory of relativity. Thus, liquid crystals do find important application potential now and beyond; however, it is a creation drawing from many diverse subfields that result in a technology able to bring colors and visual display to billions of households around the world and, in the process, enabling learning and understanding of the world, local and beyond.


Collectively, Nobel prizes are awarded for novelty in ideas and research findings, which upon sufficient verification and after reproduction in many labs around the world, are found to have a lasting impact on the developmental path of specific fields of science, literature and economics research. While application potential of an idea and research findings are important considerations in the deliberations for prize award, it ranks a distant second to the importance of a piece of finding on shaping the future development and direction of scientific research and, more importantly, human life on Earth. Reviewing recent awards of the prize in chemistry, biology and physics, one may find that there is a disturbing trend towards the award of prizes to work that are of application origin, without significant breakthroughs in basic originality in ideas and experimental findings. Take, for example, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to the development of liquid crystals display, application potential of the technology certainly ranks it as one of the most important technological developments in display technology. However, does it fundamentally transform how we watch televisions? The answer is no. Because liquid crystals display technology can only be construed as an improvement in resolution compared to previous generation cathode ray tube displays. Hence, liquid crystals display is an improvement, and not a technological breakthrough. More importantly, its development is a piece of applied research rather than basic research.


Category: materials, science policy,

Tags: materials, Nobel Prize, fundamental discovery, application potential, applied research,


Acknowledgement: Ng Wenfa thank Seah Kwi Shan for co-authoring this blog post.





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