Do black scientists matter to the Nobel Prize Committee?

Do black scientists matter to the Nobel Prize Committee?

Sunday, October 18, 2020

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Despite not being a global prize in its origin, the Nobel Prize is widely regarded as such, rivaling even the highest awards by the United Nations in prestige.

Nobel awardees are internationally seen as having made unique and important contributions to mankind in their respective fields.

The Nobel Prize for peace – awarded by a committee of five appointed by the Storting (the Norwegian Parliament) – has been given to a variety of institutions and individuals that represent the ethnic, cultural and political diversity of the world.

Less so, the Swedish Academy is responsible for the selection of the Nobel Prize in literature, with the mea culpa of the reviewers and judges not reading languages other than English. There have been 117 Nobel laureates in literature from 1901 to 2020, of which less than 10 were non-Europeans.

The situation in the sciences in which the awards are decided by the Karolinska Institutet of Norway or the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences – whose membership consists only of citizens of those countries – is a cause for concern.

Using nationality as a proxy for ethnicity reveals an almost exclusive award to people of caucasian ethnicity. This is the case with the Nobel Prize in medicine since its inception in 1901 until 2019.

The total number of winners is 209, of which 100 were Americans, 64 from Europe, 30 from the United Kingdom, seven from Australia, four from Canada, with four from Japan being the exception.

During a similar time period, the prize in physics was awarded to 218 people – 94 Americans, 119 Europeans, with the other paltry five going to China, two; India, one; Pakistan, one; and Morocco, one. The prize in chemistry has been awarded since the inception in 1969.

The Nobel Prize in economics has been awarded to 184 laureates – 71 Americans, 97 Europeans, eight Japanese, six Israelis, five Canadians, and two New Zealanders. The rare exceptions were one Indian, who happened to be an American citizen teaching at a US university and one black St Lucian, Sir Arthur Lewis.

Only once (1979) in 50 years was the prize awarded for “pioneering research into economic development research with particular consideration of the problems of developing countries”.

No individual black scientist has been awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine, chemistry and physics. The closest was Professor Anthony Chen, a Jamaican atmospheric physicist, who was among the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) researchers awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in 2007. This was a group award and not for science.

Essentially, the manner in which the Nobel Prize is awarded is saying that only caucasians working in caucasian countries produce science. Put another way, it is suggesting, and not subtly, that no black person anywhere in the world in the last 120 years made any new or notable contribution to science.

What could be the explanation? We know that the nomination process is a very open one. Is it because research and development expenditure and capacity just happens to be concentrated in the developed countries peopled by caucasians?

This data does prompt the question of whether there is an unwitting ethnocentricity in the recognition of science that certainly warrants examination.

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