Nothing has shaken the world so much since spring 2020 as a small virus that cannot be seen with the naked eye. With the unusually rapid development of mRNA vaccines, the world got a means of fighting the virus and the corona pandemic at the end of 2020. Before the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize winners starting next Monday, after 18 months of pandemic, the question must therefore be allowed: Is it time for a Nobel Prize for the researchers behind the scientific breakthrough? Some think this is possible – but as always, all of this is just speculation in advance.
The usual secrecy
Traditionally, no one outside of the select judges in Stockholm and Oslo knows who will be considered for the prizes in the categories of medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics. Accordingly, speculations boil up every year – and this has to do not least with the wording of the specifications of the award sponsor Alfred Nobel (1833-1896).
In the will of the dynamite inventor, on which the Nobel Prizes go back, there is the famous phrase that the awards should go to those “who have brought the greatest benefit to mankind in the past year”. This sentence creates a tension between topicality and the thoroughness in the selection of the award winners, says Stockholm chemistry professor Gunnar von Heijne, who was on the selection committee for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for almost two decades until last year.
“The Nobel committees and the awarding institutions have been wrestling with this incompatible wish of Nobel for 120 years,” says von Heijne. Incompatible because one year after a discovery one can hardly decide whether it has actually had a great – or even the greatest – benefit for mankind. Rather, the breakthroughs would have to mature before one can see their full scope.
However, the committees have found a way to master the balancing act: “Prizes are given to things that are currently relevant, but they often honor discoveries that were made a long time ago. These discoveries are only now showing their importance,” says von Heijne. It is only after ten or 20 years that one can often say whether something has really been extremely useful to mankind – that is what makes Nobel’s prizes so unique and special, says the professor at the Stockholm University of SU.
Award after 50 years
A good example of such a balancing act was the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics: It was awarded for the detection of gravitational waves of cosmic origin, which could only be measured directly with detectors in 2015. A very topical topic at the time of the award of the prize – but the award-winning physicists had already researched this in the mid-1970s, as Nobel expert von Heijne underscores.
For Stockholm standards, things went particularly fast last year when biochemists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna received the award: They received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing gene scissors for targeted genetic modification – a work that they presented only eight years earlier had. The potential of this discovery was already seen back then, says von Heijne. “But potential is not enough. It must first prove its worth to humanity.”
The mRNA process on which the corona vaccines from Biontech / Pfizer and Moderna are based has quickly proven its worth in the fight against the pandemic. Is that or another aspect of the Corona fight enough for a Nobel Prize? “I can’t say anything about prizes that have not yet been awarded,” says von Heijne, referring to his longstanding relationship with the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
So it remains to be seen what will be announced in Stockholm on Monday: First the winners in medicine / physiology will be named, followed by physics, chemistry and literature from Tuesday to Thursday. By the way: As in the previous year, the World Health Organization (WHO) is a top favorite among bookmakers – but not for one of the scientific prizes, but for the Nobel Peace Prize.