By Peter Harmsen, AFP
STOCKHOLM — Awarding Nobels decades after the original scientific discovery could lead to the coveted prize becoming irrelevant, some observers say, as aging researchers miss out on their turn to get the long-awaited call from Sweden.
That’s what happened in 2011 when the Nobel committee announced that half the prize for medicine and physiology would go to Canadian-born biologist Ralph Steinman. It soon emerged that Steinman had died three days earlier, but the Nobel committee made an exception to its own rule that the prize cannot be awarded posthumously, arguing that it thought he was alive when it made the decision. “If we keep going on like this, there will be many more cases of this kind. It’s just a matter of time. So something has to be done,” said Santo Fortunato, a physicist at Finland’s Aalto University. Earlier this year, Fortunato and several other scientists wrote an article in the prestigious magazine Nature that documented how the wait was growing longer. “Before 1940, Nobels were awarded more than 20 years after the original discovery for only about 11 percent of physics, 15 percent of chemistry and 24 percent of physiology or medicine prizes,” they wrote. “Since 1985, however, such lengthy delays have featured in 60 percent, 52 percent and 45 percent of these awards, respectively.” If the trend continues, they wrote, by the end of this century, the prizewinners’ predicted average age for receiving the award is likely to exceed their projected life expectancy. In other words, most might be dead by the time they are in line for getting a Nobel prize. “This lag threatens to undermine science’s most venerable institution,” they concluded in the Nature article. Hold off the ‘cheerleaders’ The criticism comes as the 2014 Nobel prizes in the sciences are set to be announced this week.