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"And the prize goes to...": Nobel and Bias in Accolades

Throughout the first week of October, the Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, peace, and economics were announced for academics and advocates who, according to the Nobel Organization, have “conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.”

Every laureate receiving the Prize in 2022 is white, including only two women out of the eleven (non-organization) winners. Additionally, every laureate is based in Europe or the United States. The prize, tracing back to 1901, has been criticized over its history of eurocentrism. Each year, critics point out the lack of representation of people of color, women, non-Europeans, and non-Americans in the group of winners, particularly in the science categories.

In total, only 3% of science laureates to date have been women. Of the twenty most-recognized countries by the Nobel Organization, only two of them are Asian countries. Japan holds a spot at 8th with 28 prizes and India at 17th with 12 prizes. Only the Peace Prize, and Chemistry Prize, has been awarded to women hailing from Asian countries. Throughout its over-century-long existence, there have been no black science laureates. With such disparity within academic acclimation persisting despite rising rates of women and POC entering high positions in academia alongside increasing pushes for diversity within professional spaces, why was Nobel so white this year?

Like many European institutions, funded and overseen by the wealthy academics of Sweden and various surrounding countries, the Nobel Organization exemplifies bias. At its core, the Nobel Organization is a group of white men awarding white men. Without the media exposure major awards bring, the contributions of scholars who already experience marginalization in academia go unrecognized. Furthermore, when research ideas coming from the perspectives of people of color are not funded, reported on, or awarded due to bias, it creates a serious empty space in education which can cause a ripple effect of harm on marginalized communities. The Nobel awards more often than not overshadow the work of those who are asking the questions which force the world of research to take critical looks at the intersections of science, access, impact, and oppression.

Winners of the Nobel Prize are not only awarded the famed prize but also incredible exposure and opportunities to advance their research. Prize recipients often are featured in global news outlets which highlight their life’s research, achievements, and future plans. Within minutes of the nomination announcements, media sources globally profile each new inductee.

Nobel laureates also share strong and exclusive networking and funding opportunities among other colleague of winners in their induction class. A sum of money, around $900,000 USD, is granted to winners from the fund started by its founder, Alfred Nobel. The Swedish chemist left his entire fortune to the foundation of the prize in his will. After a career stained by accusations of being a war profiteer and “merchant of death” for his invention of dynamite during the Franco-German war, Nobel created the prize to repair his legacy. The Nobel Organization has seemingly come from questionable origins and perhaps has bled through to its modern-day blunders.

Exclusivity in acclaim sends a message to funding agencies, editorial boards, and aspiring young academics about who can excel in their respective fields and who can’t. In an interview with PBS, Kimberly Griffin who is an associate professor at the University of Maryland and serves at the editor of the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education stated on visible lack of diversity in recent Nobel laureate classes, “Who wins… is a way to determine who is a ‘real scientist,’ and if you don’t see yourself reflected in those prizes, you might not think of yourself as a real scientist,” (PBS news). Moreover damage is create by awarding a minimal amount of non-white men to fill a social “quota” in order to avoid public cancelation. People of color deserve more spots in history than are being given to them. The Nobel Organization must do better if the institution wishes to fulfill its mission of celebrating and propelling human excellence.

Editors: Leandra S, Chris F, Nadine R


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