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Premature burial, show business and the Nobel prize

October 4, 2016 7:57 PM
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Awards week shows the value of a strong brand identity.

As befits someone who made his fortune from dynamite, Alfred Nobel was worried about a premature death. The will that set up prizes in his name is most well known for his much discussed — if vague — intention that the awards should recognize work with a benefit for humanity. Less well known is that the will concludes with an instruction from Alfred for a doctor to open his veins, allow him to bleed out, and then, unusually for the time, to burn his remains in a new-fangled crematorium. This was a man determined to avoid being buried alive. (Given his fear of being wrongly diagnosed as deceased, it must have been a shock for him to read his own obituary, published in error on the death of his brother almost a decade before his own death.)

Nobel prize week is a time when some showbiz glamour is sprinkled on the world of science and research. For a few days each year, the names and photographs of scientists are presented to the public, alongside — sometimes surprisingly detailed — descriptions of their discoveries and the benefits they provide. Already this week, analyses of the cellular mechanism of autophagy (or how cells digest and recycle their components) and of exotic states of matter that may pave the way for quantum computers have been laid out for public consumption.

In a world of increasing competition for eyeballs, attention and web clicks, it’s worth remembering that the Nobel prizes are a global, regular and almost-universally admired advertisement for the career that many of Nature’s readers dedicate their lives to — and frequently lament that the wider public does not appreciate.

That’s not to say that the Nobel prizes are immune from criticism. Do Alfred’s original categories truly reflect the span of modern science? And why limit the number of prizewinners to three? Readers with a taste for Counter-Reformation baroque Flemish art can enjoy a lengthy defence of the three-prize limit that was published in the journal Cell last month (J. L. Goldstein Cell 167, 5–8; 2016), in which the author eagerly draws on the triptych paintings of Peter Paul Rubens (and later Francis Bacon) for inspiration. More tangibly perhaps, the untimely death of physicist Deborah Jin has refocused debate on the extent to which the annual decisions of the Nobel prize committee should be swayed by whether deserving candidates will be alive to receive an award in future years. (The rules laid out in Alfred’s will state that prizes cannot be awarded posthumously.)

“Nobel prize week is a time when some showbiz glamour is sprinkled on the world of science and research.”

The proliferation of academic prizes in recent years — some of which are much more lucrative than the Nobels — has increased the pressure on the Nobel Foundation to move with the times. It’s what corporate brand consultants call a clash between identity — what an organization chooses to do — and reputation, or how that action sits with what people on the outside think it should do.

But as one Nobel official puts it: “I don’t think the reputation of the Nobel prize was built by people caring about the reputation of the prize.” And, for good measure, he adds: “It is not necessarily a remit to go out and find out what the world thinks of the Nobel prize and try and adjust our behaviour because of that … It is interesting to know what the world thinks of the Nobel prize, but should that change our behaviour?”

There is a motto at the Nobel Foundation: a good prize one year will be a better one the next. So far, it is difficult to argue with the benefit.

Source: nature.com

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