Do Nobel Prize Winners Become Wealthy?
The inventions and discoveries of Nobel Prize winners are often society changing, but many of the laureates don't actually benefit from their research, at least financially.
"Most recipients don't become wealthier after getting the Nobel Prize," said Bruno Strasser, assistant professor of history of science & medicine at Yale University. "However, it depends on how you define wealthy."
The prize itself has been at $1.5 million (10 million Swedish Krona) for the past nine years. This is, of course, before the money is shared – which it often is – by up to three people in a given field. Then the funds are taxed.
What's left is still a significant sum. But most laureates don't retire off their Prize money, nor do they leave their day jobs at universities.
"A typical average income for a [senior] scientist is in the lower-six figures," Strasser said. "However, many can make extra money by giving talks, sitting on a company boards and working on book deals."
The prize does give these scientists a celebrity status in their field, meaning they'll turn the heads of other prestigious scientists.
"Earning the Nobel Prize does, however, influence the ability to do things you want, such as collaborating with someone you've always wanted to work with," said neuroscientist Paul Greengard, who was named one of three winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000.
Can't patent nature
The main reason why many Nobel Prize winners don't go on to make millions from their discoveries is because they are often awarded for fairly abstruse work that is theoretical, according to Daniel Kelves, a colleague of Strasser’s and a Professor of History and Medicine at Yale.
"Laws of nature and ideas are not patentable," Kelves said. "Nobel Prizes have been given for identifying or developing such laws, but there is no direct profit for those scientists."
For example, Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for explaining how photons are responsible for the photoelectric effect, but this is a product of nature that is not in and of itself patentable.
There are indeed wealthy scientists currently working in the field, including J. Craig Venter, known for his work with the human genome, and Herbert Boyer, famous for his genetic engineering experiments, said Strasser. However, they have yet to receive the Nobel Prize.
"Most scientists who do Nobel-quality work do not get into the game to get rich," Kelves said. "They may get rich later, but you can't attribute such after-the-fact consequences to intentions before the fact."
"Prize winners are well known and highly respected within their field of science before they get the call from Stockholm," Kelves added. "Along with the post-tax money, the Prize gives the winners status and cachet outside their field among the general public, but how they respond to their new affluence and position is as varied as the human character."
The prize-money influence
Neuroscientist Greengard said his discoveries concerning signal transduction in the nervous system have not influenced his financial situation.
"My discoveries never had a direct impact on my financial status, neither did winning the Prize," Greengard told LiveScience. "The rate of which I was offered book deals increased after I won, but I don't tend to write books, so it never influenced my income."
Greengard gave his prize money to Rockefeller University, where he is currently a professor and head of the Laboratory of Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience. His donation is used to give a $50,000 annual prize to an outstanding female biomedical researcher.
According to Michael Sohlman, executive director of the Nobel Foundation, "since many of the scientists already have a solid financial situation, they often give it away to charitable organizations."
President Obama – who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year – donated his awarded money to 10 charities, the majority of which were education-related.
"Some recipients make contributions to universities or institutions where they have worked before as a token of gratitude," Sohlman told LiveScience. "Others use it for good deeds, and then some use it to buy something they've wanted, such as a new house."
Philip A. Sharp, who was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with Richard J. Roberts, for their discoveries of split genes, purchased a new home.
"I wanted to change homes at the time, so I used the money to do so," Sharp said, adding that he earned his living from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and biotech company Biogen long before the prize.
"You can make money from receiving the Nobel Prize, but I have not. It may provide public creditability and makes public relations easier, but I doubt if any prize winner consciously takes advantage of this opportunity. Receiving the prize is a cultural event not a financial one," Sharp added.
The way of the scientist
Although some scientists may benefit from new deals, many feel uncomfortable in the world of business, according to Strasser.
For example, Werner Arber -- who won the Nobel prize for the discovery of so-called restriction enzymes in 1978 -- was approached many times to work for the lucrative pharmaceutical industry or biotech companies, but never did. Meanwhile, 1959 laureate Arthur Kornberg tried, but as he tells in his autobiography, "The Golden Helix: Inside Biotech Ventures" (University Science Books, 1995), he never felt comfortable in that environment.
"Historically, most scientists from the Renaissance period to the 19th century were already wealthy and did not have to use their work to make a living," Strasser said.
"In fact, it was inappropriate for scientists to make money during that time, because it was deemed to be antithetical to the values of science, which included virtues such as disinterestedness and detachment from material things and society in general."
Eventually, by the late 20th Century, it became not only acceptable but encouraged to make money from scientific knowledge. However, for most of the 20th century, personal enrichment through scientific research was still considered taboo, especially in biology and medicine.
"The New York Times wrote several pieces back in 1917 complaining about the fact the Paul Ehrlich (1908 Nobel Prize) was making money off the sales of Salvarsan – a drug to treat syphilis," Strasser said. "Today, it would be rarer for someone to criticize making money from medical knowledge."
Although some Nobel Prize winners make a successful living today, it's not the quickest way to millions.
"If you're looking to get rich, you'll have to do more than just go for the Nobel Prize," Strasser said.
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