The Nobel Prize: What Is it Good For?

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The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences minted nine new science Nobel Laureates this week.

James Peebles, Michael Mayor, and Didier Queloz split the physics prize for work that, according to the Academy, has “transformed our ideas about the cosmos.” Peebles’ theoretical work underlies contemporary understandings of the formation of the universe, while Mayor and Queloz discovered the first planet outside the solar system to orbit a Sun-like star.

The physiology or medicine prize went to William Kaelin, Peter Ratcliffe, and Gregg Semenza, for work on “how cells can sense and adapt to changing oxygen availability.” And John Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino split the chemistry prize for their contributions to the development of the lithium-ion battery.

The Nobels bring a measure of glamor to work that often receives too little attention. It’s rare for, say, a chemistry professor in New York State who studies solid state ionics to receive such a burst of global acclaim.

But this year’s Nobel Prizes also highlight the ways in which the institution is increasingly coming to seem antiquated.

In the 118 years that Nobels have been awarded in the sciences, only 20 out of more than 600 have gone to women; all of this year’s winners were men. Coming at a time of increasing attention to the effects of sexism on science, the result may both reflect and reinforce longstanding biases in scientific communities. In an interview with ABC News, Heather Metcalf of the Association for Women in Science called the outcome “very disappointing,” adding, “I definitely don’t think it’s a fair reflection of the contributions women have made to STEM.”

The prizes, with their focus on individual achievement, can also downplay the role that large teams of researchers often play in making major discoveries. And, as the cosmologist Brian Keating has argued, the focus on winning a Nobel can sometimes skew research, incentivizing teams to push hard for flashy findings.

What’s clear is that, for better or for worse, winning a Nobel Prize gives a researcher a whole new public platform. And there are indications that, in the future, the people getting access to that platform might be at least a little more diverse. In an interview with Nature before the prizes were announced, Göran Hansson, the secretary-general of the Swedish Academy, said that he had seen an uptick in women being nominated for the prize. “It’s small,” he said, “but it’s a trend.”

Also in the news:

• Between 1989 and 2017, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) bought more than 43,000 flood-prone properties, mostly through its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. A new study published this week finds that the money went disproportionately to wealthy and densely populated counties, fueling worries that the program could exacerbate inequality. “There is a real potential for our responses in a changing climate to make the fat cats fatter, so to speak” Katharine Mach, the paper’s lead author told The New York Times. Mach and her collaborators speculated that the disparity might be due to the way the buyout program is structured: To participate, local governments must have the resources to apply for and administer the buyouts, and they must typically match every $3 from FEMA with $1 of their own. The study did find, however, that within any given county, buyout grants tend to be used in lower-income neighborhoods. FEMA’s David Maurstad said in a statement that the agency’s grant programs aren’t designed to address economic inequalities. (The Associated Press)

• Over the past week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 219 more cases of vaping-related illnesses and seven additional deaths, including the first deaths reported in Massachusetts and Utah. That puts the total number of cases reported at 1,299, and total deaths at 29. The unexplained outbreak has now reached 49 states, the District of Columbia, and the United States Virgin Islands, with no clear cause and cases linked to vaping nicotine, THC, or a combination of both. It’s also led to lawsuits in three U.S. school districts in Kansas, Missouri, and New York. The school districts are suing the electronic cigarette company Juul, which projected $3.4 billion in sales this year, alleging Juul targeted youth in its marketing. Also responding, Washington State followed Massachusetts, initiating a temporary 120-day ban on flavored vape products. These bans may be driving some vape customers across state lines, with New Hampshire smoke shops connecting a recent swell in sales to the Massachusetts ban. (CNBC)

• NASA’s first all-female spacewalk is back on this month, after being cancelled earlier this year due to a lack of appropriately-sized spacesuits. Astronauts Christina Koch and Anne McClain were originally scheduled to conduct the spacewalk in March, but both needed a medium-sized torso component for their suits; only one was readily available. While NASA acknowledged that it did have a second medium-sized suit on board, it would not be able to ready it in time for the walk. Instead, the agency paired Koch with a male colleague who could fit the larger-sized suit, sparking backlash online. This time around, Koch will venture out with fellow astronaut Jessica Meir to install lithium-ion batteries outside the International Space Station. “I think it’s important because of the historical nature of what we’re doing,” Koch said on NASA TV last Friday. “[I]n the past, women haven’t always been at the table.” (The New York Times)

• On Monday evening, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the nation’s largest utility, announced that power outages would start Wednesday in multiple Northern California counties. The outages, which have already affected more than half a million customers, are intended to prevent fires during high seasonal winds forecast for this week. But the event has illustrated the economic inequalities of trying to mitigate impacts from climate change, like wildfires. For example, in a Wednesday tweet, the City of Berkeley posted an alert to residents: “If you are power-dependent for medical reasons and live in a potentially affected area, please use your own resources to relocate to an unaffected area now.” Meanwhile, less vulnerable power lines around big tech companies have been spared. Berkeley officials recommend that those unable to help themselves call 911 to be transported to an emergency room, but there is no clarification whether the expenses of power-outage related visits would be covered. The economic impacts extend beyond those with medical needs tied to electricity. Outages can destroy refrigerated and frozen food and cause workplace closures, affecting hourly workers. The shutdowns are anticipated to continue through next week and affect another quarter of a million customers. (Vox)

• Just three days after publication of a controversial study suggesting that eating red meat was far less risky to health than previously thought, a second wave of news stories reported that the lead author of that work had failed to disclose long-standing ties to the food industry. As noted in Undark last week, just hours after Bradley Johnston of Dalhousie University and his colleagues proposed that the links between red meat and issues like heart disease had been overstated, critics began publishing rebuttals. When news broke regarding Johnston’s industry ties, many critics seized on that information to further discredit his findings, arguing that he had evaded full disclosure of the relationship. The Annals of Internal Medicine, which published the study, requires authors to report any conflicts of interest within a three-year period prior to publication. Johnston did not tell the journal that, in December 2016, he had been lead author on a paper about the health risks of sugar that was funded by the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), an industry trade group. Johnston countered that he had received the money for that study in 2015 and was not technically required to report it to the research journal. Editors at the journal said that, while they would encourage authors to err on the side of full disclosure, they still stood behind the study. And Johnston expressed dismay that the association with ILSI tainted what he considered to be good work: “It’s not worth working with industry at all.” (The New York Times)

• Following last month’s revelations about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s relationship with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, another research partnership at MIT has come under public scrutiny. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Commerce added SenseTime, an artificial intelligence startup with which MIT is collaborating on a number of research projects, to a growing blacklist of Chinese companies no longer permitted to purchase American products or engage in business with U.S. companies. According to a Commerce Department filing, the organizations on the list have been implicated in the Chinese government’s persecution and internment of Muslim minorities in an autonomous region of western China. In an email to Bloomberg, an MIT spokeswoman wrote that the institution would review the relationship and “modify any interactions, as necessary.” When MIT first announced its partnership with SenseTime early last year, the news release stated the company would be part of an initiative intended to “advance research into human and machine intelligence in service to all humanity,” with a careful eye toward “the economic, cultural, and ethical implications of AI.” Earlier this year, MIT paused its relationships with two other Chinese tech firms, Huawei and ZTE, after federal officials accused the companies of violating U.S. sanctions, and wrote in a letter to faculty members that the university had changed its review process for international research partnerships of “elevated-risk.” MIT has also received attention recently for its relationships with the government of Saudi Arabia. (Bloomberg)

• More than a quarter of all mammals and nearly half of all birds in the United Kingdom are at risk of disappearing entirely, according to the National Biodiversity Network’s new State of Nature report, which paints a dire picture of the U.K.’s rapidly declining native wildlife. The report drew on data from more than 7,000 species and includes input from more than 70 organizations. Since the 1970s, the report finds, 41 percent of species have decreased in abundance, and, as of this year one in seven species in the U.K. are threatened with possible extinction. Wildlife designated as “priority species,” such as the hedgehog and the turtle dove, have had their natural habitats reduced by 27 percent, and 60 percent of priority species have experienced population decline the past five decades. In Scotland, one in ten species are threatened with extinction, and the once abundant Scottish wildcat is on the verge of vanishing. The report also states that about a quarter of all moths and one in five butterflies have already been lost. Furthermore, one in five of the U.K.’s plant species are reportedly facing extinction as well. “The U.K.’s wildlife is in serious trouble,” said Rosie Hails, the nature and science director at the National Trust. “We are now at a crossroads when we need to pull together with actions rather than words.” (BBC)

• And finally: A telescope in Hawaii captured images of 20 never-before seen moons orbiting Saturn, researchers announced Monday. The research team, led by astronomer Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science, used algorithms to examine images of Saturn taken between 2004 and 2007, which enabled them to distinguish the tiny moons moving around Saturn from a field of stationary dots of light that characterize stars and galaxies. The discovery means Saturn’s moon count now surpasses Jupiter’s, 82 to 79. Saturn’s new moons are very small — each barely three miles in diameter — but they are moons nonetheless: celestial bodies that make a complete orbit around a planet. Speaking about Saturn’s new moons, Sheppard explained: “These moons are the remnants of the objects that helped form the planets, so by studying them, we are learning about what the planets formed from.” A moon naming contest is underway, organized by Carnegie Science. (The Associated Press)

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Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Wired, Salon, Slate, Pacific Standard, the Daily Beast, and The Washington Post, among other publications.