Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Nobels and other prizes, and/despite the collaborative nature of science

The Nobel prizes have brought out some thoughtful critiques of the practice of prizes being awarded to individual scientists or to a few among many. (See e.g. these articles in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Conversation.) They sensibly focus on the fact that prizes single out individuals, while science is increasingly (inevitably) done by teams, whether real teams or virtual ones--acrobats of all sizes standing on the shoulders of giants.

I'm of two minds about this (maybe three--because it is a lot of fun to be a guest of honor at a big prize party).

I agree that, within science, prizes to individuals add unnecessary celebrity culture to science, and gloss over the fact that science is a team sport.

On the other hand, outside the walls of academe, it is a good thing to see science celebrated in the culture at large. I don't know of an equally effective way to do that than to temporarily designate some scientists as celebrities of the day.

Scientific celebrity may not be the real thing (as measured by twitter followers, for example), but it serves a role in reminding our fellow citizens that the pursuit of reliable knowledge is a good thing, especially considering the alternatives.

No comments: