Three Things We’ve Learnt From This Year’s Nobel Awards In The Sciences

While coronavirus will undoubtedly be the first thing people remember about 2020, the prominent role of science in society won’t be far behind – as I’ve written about previously.

And so it was with this year’s Nobel Prize announcements in the sciences that we were reminded of some other great achievements of our time away from the race to find a vaccine, with each of them rightly gaining a good share of media attention.  

To me, three things stood out. 

1) U.K. pedigree 

Ahead of the publication of the U.K. government’s new industrial strategy – in which science and innovation are anticipated to underpin all of the main themes – we were reminded once again of the country’s ability to punch above its weight on the global stage.  

The three winners of this year’s Prize in Medicine – Harvey Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles Rice – were a transatlantic partnership of a Brit in Professor Houghton alongside two American colleagues.

Some 30 years ago they successfully identified the existence of Hepatitis C. It made possible blood tests to detect its existence and ended the Russion Roulette faced by patients requiring blood transfusions. It is not an exaggeration to say their work has saved millions of lives. 

Meanwhile, the Prize in Physics went to Sir Roger Penrose, another Brit among three prize sharing winners. He successfully proved that black holes are a consequence of Einstein’s theory of relativity. 

2) Good science (usually) takes time

Sir Roger’s work on blackholes first rose to prominence in the 1960s and Michael Houghton and his colleague’s achievements in 1989. 

While it might seem odd to the layman that it can take 30 years to win a prize for a ‘new’ discovery, this is commonplace. The Nobel Prize rightly sets a high bar for validation, meaning a body of evidence that usually takes many years to develop is needed. 

This is important. Look at the damage still being done today by the publication of a highly flawed study that claimed the MMR vaccine led to autism in children. Science is nothing without its burden of proof. 

3) Nobel surprises 

Though sometimes breakthroughs are so transformational that their impact becomes mainstream in just a few years. 

Every so often the Nobel Prize throws up some surprises and this year was no exception. 

In the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier and Professor Jennifer Doudna were recognised for their discovery of a new genome editing tool, CRISPR. 

Discovered just eight years ago (believe me, this is warpspeed in the world of science), CRISPR has already revolutionised much of our everyday work in life sciences and is used in labs throughout the world. Its impact has been wide ranging, even leading to the creation of innovative new crops. Soon, we will no doubt see groundbreaking medical treatments. 

It was also a welcome surprise to see the Prize in Chemistry shared between two women for the first time, making them only the sixth and seventh female winners in the category. 

And one of Sir Roger’s co-winners in Physics was Professor Andrea Ghez, only the fourth woman to win in this category. 

That it is still a surprise to see female winners is in itself not really something to celebrate. But we can only hope that it is a sign of progress. We must accept that inspiring young girls and women to pursue a career in science needs more female role models. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

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