Nobel Prize categories stir debate

2010-10-01 22:12

Stockholm - The Nobel Prize categories have basically remained unchanged for more than a hundred years and some critics are calling for them to be expanded to better reflect the modern world.

"I expect more of the Nobel Prizes," said US epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, one of ten high-ranking scientists who sent an open letter to the Nobel Foundation last year asking it to consider expanding the categories.

"I admire them as the certificate of worldwide approval of the greatest achievements, (but today) they fall short," he told AFP.

Brilliant and others lament that many researchers are never recognised with a prestigious Nobel simply because their work falls outside the narrow categories outlined in Alfred Nobel's will in 1895.

Today's cutting-edge research in fields like environmental science and ecology and public health, for instance, are not easily acknowledged in the original prize categories: medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and peace, which were first attributed in 1901.

Those categories remain unchanged, and although the Swedish Central Bank in 1968 created an economics prize in Nobel's memory, the foundation is quick to stress that it is not in fact a "real" Nobel prize.

"The world has become vastly more complex," Brilliant said, adding "I think there are many other categories that could have been included in the Nobels."

No new prizes

Nobel Foundation chief Micheal Sohlman flatly rejected that idea.

"There will not be any new prizes ... We have quite enough prizes," he said.

"The existing categories mark Alfred Nobel's fields of interest," he explained, pointing out that "there are lots of new prizes out there that can take care of new categories".

Sohlman also stressed that the different Nobel committees have sought to expand the range within their categories, making it possible for work on climate change for instance to be recognised with the Peace Prize.

Tim Hunt, a British biochemist who won the 2001 Nobel Medicine Prize, agreed that the prize committees "exercise extreme ingenuity to get around" the narrowness of the categories.

He was among the signataries to the 2009 letter to the foundation, but told AFP he actually thinks the categories themselves are fine but is critical of the Nobel rule allowing no more than three people to share a single prize.

"It's perfectly possible to conceive of a Nobel prize-deserving discovery that could not easily be ascribed to any one, two or three people, that would fall through the cracks," he said.

Other critics insist there is no reason the foundation should not be more flexible in its approach to the prizes since Nobel's final wishes have already repeatedly been adjusted to keep step with modernity.

A clear example is the addition of the Economics Prize, which although not considered a true Nobel is attributed by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences like the Physics and Chemistry prizes and figures on the Nobel website.

"They have violated the will before," Brilliant said, insisting that "in light of (the Economics) expansion, which was a concession to modernity ... then what about a Nobel prize in global health?"

Nobel's will also stipulates that the prize should go to "those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind," but the committees rarely limit themselves to discoveries in the past 12 months alone.

Tread carefully

"It is very difficult to judge if discoveries and theories have been of the greatest use to humanity if you're just looking at the past year," explained Paul Sjoeblom, a historian at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm.

He points out that "Alfred Nobel himself was very intent on the prize keeping in step with developments ... I can think of many categories that could have been included."

Hunt meanwhile said the Nobel Foundation should not rush to include "new" areas such climate science.

"Global warming is still mired in controversy," he said, insisting the committees need to avoid repeating past errors when prizes were attributed to not fully proven science, as the 1949 Medicine Prize given for work on lobotomies.

Sjoeblom also acknowledged the Nobel Foundation needed to tread carefully.

"If there are too many prize categories the status of the prizes could be watered down," he cautioned.

Read more on:    sweden

Read News24’s Comments Policy


Inside News24


Zille: Only DA can challenge ANC in F State

The DA is the only party that can challenge the ANC in the Free State, opposition party leader Helen Zille says.


Latest elections multimedia

Why Jack Parow wants you to vote on 7 May
The ad the SABC doesn't want to air
Elections 2014 in one cartoon
This year's election posters
  • Monday Muizenberg - 15:04 PM
    Road name: Main Road Southbound
    HEAVY DELAYS between Muizenberg and Fish Hoek
  • Monday Sir Lowry's Pass - 13:45 PM
    Road name: N2 Westbound
    HEAVY TRAFFIC over Sir Lowrys Pass - expect delays
More traffic reports...

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Escape winter, head to Mauritius

Escape winter by spending 7 nights in Mauritius' tropical bliss from R13 215 per person sharing. Includes return flights, airport transfers and accommodation. Book now! - shop online today

Get many eggs in one basket!

Gaming bundles: 2 Super Hits games for R99, 3 Disney games for R99 and more + exclusive accessory bundles only available on While stocks last. Shop now!

25% off bestselling books!

The Real Meal Revolution by Tim Noakes, Jeffrey Archer’s Be Careful What You Wish for, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frank and many more titles. Shop now!

Up to 25% off electronics

Buy top electronics and save up to 25%. Such as’s 1# selling product the gobii eReader, Patriot X Porter flash drive, Asus Nexus 7” 3G tablet, Samsung Galaxy SIII, Lenovo G580 Notebook and many more. Shop now!

DStv HD PVR Decoder now R949

The DStv HD PVR Decoder has further revolutionised the television experience with lifelike viewing, sharper images, more vibrant colours and precision picture quality. Now R949, save R550. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Up to 30% off appliances & homeware

Save up to 30% on appliances and homeware this Easter! Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now.

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

BlackBerry Bold 9780

BlackBerry 6 Engage your world with BlackBerry 6 OS on the...

From R3049.00

I'm shopping for:


There may be a break through, either through quiet contemplative time to connect to your deep side or forced on you more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.