What's Missing From the Nobel Prizes? Scientists Weigh In

The profile of Alfred Nobel appears on the side of the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway. (Image credit: Vladislav Gajic | Shutterstock.com)

The Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel established the Nobel prizes more than 100 years ago, in 1895, with the following prize categories: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and peace.

Today, 118 years later, those categories have essentially remained the same, except for the addition of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science — popularly known as the Economics Prize — in 1968. (The prize for literature was added in 1901.)

Meanwhile, science has catapulted forward. The age of computing has come about, as have drastic changes in Earth's environment and the way humans interact with the world.

LiveScience conducted a poll of an international group of scientists from a range of disciplines to determine what types of categories modern scientists feel are missing from the prizes. We asked the scientists to consider whether the existing prizes accurately represent science today, and if not, what categories they think should be added. [The 10 Noblest Nobel Prize Winners of All Time]

The answers varied almost as widely as the disciplines surveyed, but there was also some overlap among the 15 responses LiveScience received.

Foremost, many wondered why there is not a prize in mathematics.

"Mathematics is the international language, foundation and building block of almost all societal advances," argued Jennifer Irish, a coastal engineer from Virginia Tech.

The reason behind the omission of what many consider a shoe-in prize category remains a mystery. Some say that Nobel wanted his prizes to be in areas that clearly benefit humanity, and that he did not consider math to fit this bill. Other rumors suggest that the decision might have had something to do with a secret affair between Nobel's lover and a famous mathematician, but this remains speculative.

Tied in second place after mathematics were technology and social sciences. Those who voted for technology argued that advancements in just the past several decades, let alone the last 118 years, have drastically changed the way we live on Earth.

Technology and information science, "have obviously revolutionized life since the original categories were established, and seem to have no natural home in the existing categories," said Daniel Lidar, professor of electrical engineering and chemistry at the University of Southern California and director and co-founder of the USC Center for Quantum Information Science & Technology.

Those who voted for social sciences suggested that this has always been an important field of science, and simply cannot be shoehorned into existing categories as other more tangential sciences can.

"The most obvious omission are all the social sciences," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change. "The social sciences are vitally important in understanding human nature, the human condition and how to construct a more sustainable world."

Among the other categories suggested were engineering, geoscience, ecology, sustainability, climate science and behavioral science.

Still, others argued that the prize categories are fine as they are and should remain the same in perpetuity.

"The Nobel Prizes need to continue to reflect theoretical changes in fundamental science and not shift toward any applied sciences in response to trends of the time," said Michael Dee, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford. "All the applied sciences, including the research that I do, stem from developments in fundamental theory."

Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University, agrees that the prizes are fine as they stand now. New areas in biophysics, neuroscience and genomics can be included in medicine, chemistry and physics. New areas in physics, such as biophysics and informatics, can be included in physics, or medicine or chemistry, Krauss said. [The 9 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics]

Mak Saito, an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, is also fine with the fact that there is and may never be an earth science category that his work would fall within.

"In a sense it might be a good thing," Saito said. "We have a culture of extensive cooperation in ocean science due to our field programs, and perhaps it would be made more difficult to maintain that culture if scientists were trying to edge each other out to win a fancy award."

Here are some additional comments that we received in our survey:

1. Alexander Weigand, taxonomist at Geothe University in Frankfurt, Germany:

"Personally, I feel the actual Nobel Prize categories are very delimited from each other. Although this is definitely OK and results from their origin, some new ones could comprise interdisciplinary categories such as "sustainability" and "technic" giving credit to inventors and discoverers solving urgent daily-life problems. Something similar as already established in the Right Livelihood Award or "Alternative Nobel Prize."

2. Thomas Stoffregen, psychologist at University of Minnesota:

"Behavioral science. Ten years ago, I would have advocated a prize in psychology, but now I would put it more broadly in behavioral science. Several psychologists have been awarded Nobel Prizes, but only after being shoe-horned into other fields, such as Economics, or Medicine. So, there is not a lack of "awardable" talent, and there is not a lack of work being done in the behavioral sciences that is worthy of Nobels.

3. Graeme Clark, ecologist at University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia:

"Global consequences of human activities (e.g. climate change, species extinctions) are becoming increasingly prominent in the scientific and public domain, and the field of ecology is critical in understanding these changes and searching for solutions."

4. Christof Koch, a neuroscientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle:

"So much exciting work is happening at the intersection of natural science and mathematics, including complexity and how to measure it — the fractal nature of reality, machine learning, quantum mechanics and information theory, the theory of evolution and information theory and so on." [Images: The 11 Most Beautiful Mathematical Equations]

5. Dan Kruger, professor of evolutionary psychology at University of Michigan:

"I would change"Physiology or Medicine" to "Life Sciences;" "Economics" to "Social Sciences;" "Physics" and "Chemistry" to "Physical Sciences," also maybe create a new, more applied, category for "Technology:" "Literature" ... maybe change to "Humanities:" Keep "Peace," we need as much as we can get."

6. Jim Moum, an oceanographer at Oregon State University:

"Well, if you look at Nature of Science articles [two scientific journals] over the past couple of decades, papers involving climate science have been published, I think, with increasing regularity. This is a topical subject involving the physical, chemical, and biological responses of and feedbacks with the fluid earth (atmosphere and ocean). I think there is only on Nobel Prize to date that is related to this (1995 chemistry). It seems this is a topic worth of greater recognition."

7. Ben Kear, palaeobiologist at Uppsala University in Sweden:

"The Nobel Prizes are classically geared towards applied sciences, and politically aim for commercial impact. Consequently, basic research which provides the fundamental framework of science, is usually overlooked. In my opinion though, creating new categories is not the answer. A better solution would be to channel the funds expended upon high profile publicity ventures like the Nobel Prize, into more stable and long-term scientific research across the board. Ultimately this will produce far more in terms of real outcomes, generate more media profile, and be of greater benefit for not only scientists but also society as a whole"

8. John Skrentny, sociologist at University of California, San Diego:

"It is long overdue to expand the number of social science Nobels, or simply to make the existing Nobel for "Social Science" rather than "Economic Sciences." This is because there is no solid justification for a narrow focus on economic sciences. While that field superficially may look more "scientific" than other social sciences because it relies on math more….it is no more like a natural or physical science than are political science or sociology."

LiveScience's Bahar Gholipour, Tanya Lewis, Denise Chow, and Jeanna Bryner contributed reporting for this article.

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Laura Poppick
Live Science Contributor
Laura Poppick is a contributing writer for Live Science, with a focus on earth and environmental news. Laura has a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Bachelor of Science degree in geology from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Laura has a good eye for finding fossils in unlikely places, will pull over to examine sedimentary layers in highway roadcuts, and has gone swimming in the Arctic Ocean.