Friendships, rivalries, nationality and other ‘nonscientific’ factors had a role in determining the winners of the Nobel prize in chemistry in its first 70 years a new study finds, while the number of nominations a scientist received had little influence.

The Nobel Committee for Chemistry invites about 3000 scientists to nominate every year, and only scientists who receive nominations this way are eligible to win the prize. The current list of nominators includes members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Nobel prize laureates in chemistry and physics, chemistry professors at institutions in Scandinavia, and ‘other scientists’ the Academy chooses. The committee screens the nominations and submits a list of candidates to the Academy, which makes the final decision on the winners.

A line graph with number of nominations for each of five years prior to winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for Woodward, Barton, Heyrovsky, Nagga, Ruzicka and Ziegler

Source: © Seeman, J. I. and Restrepo, G, Chemistry—A European Journal, 2023

Number of nominations for six chemistry laureates in the years leading up to their awards. The data show an up-down-up behaviour in nominations for these laureates immediately prior to winning the prize.

Guillermo Restrepo, a chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences in Germany, and Jeffrey Seeman, a science historian at the University of Richmond, US, investigated nominations for the chemistry prize during 1901–1970 (the Academy only releases nomination data after 50 years). They were surprised to find that nominations did not appear to influence who won.

‘In all our studies, what has become apparent is the rather significant proactive behaviours of the [committee] and the Academy in identifying the subdisciplines of chemistry to be recognised and selecting the scientists to be laureated,’ says Seeman. ‘The committee members and the academicians are far more than facilitators of a nomination-selection process. For the period for which nomination data is available, it seems that nominations serve more to support the ideas of the [committee] and their ultimate choices than bring new possibilities to their attention.’

The data reveal ‘many instances’ when chemists with few nominations over few years were chosen; and in contrast, instances when chemists received many nominations over many years but were never chosen. (Christopher Ingold, for example, was nominated 112 times.)

‘There seems to be little compelling evidence that providing a nomination has much, if any, effect on the selection process,’ says Restrepo. In a handful of cases, they saw ‘up-down-up’ numbers of nominations for certain nominees. ‘These patterns are not statistical flukes. This seems to indicate a kind of coordination of nominations, perhaps among nominators, perhaps specific nominations encouraged by the committee, or both.’

The only criterion used in selecting a winner is scientific achievements, insists Peter Brzezinski, Secretary of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry and professor in biochemistry at Stockholm University. ‘The committee considers every nominated candidate and writes reports on their achievements. The process involves asking international experts to evaluate the field(s) in which the nominated scientist is active as well as the candidates themselves. Before 1970, I believe this work was done to a larger extent within the committee and the Academy. We also spend a significant amount of time on reading scientific literature published by the nominated scientists as well as by others within their field.’

Nomination networks

Last year, Chemistry World explored the Nobel nominations database to visualise the records of who nominated whom. One of the most stark plots showed just how few women had ever been nominated for a Nobel prize in chemistry, physics or medicine. 

Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University School of Medicine, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2012, is unsurprised to hear that nominations are not a driving force. ‘Nominations are a starting point for the work of the committee. As someone who has sat on many award committees, you also learn over time that some nominations can be trusted, and some can’t. It’s not surprising that human influences are at play. Committee members are humans and are subject to all kinds of biases and emotions.’

The selection of Nobel laureates is never going to be perfect, agrees Fraser Stoddart, who won the chemistry prize in 2016. ‘There will always be prize winners who are perceived by most in the community to be highly deserving. There will always be scientists who should have received the prize in the eyes of many in the community but who did not … There will always be a small group of Nobel laureates whom some members of the community believe should not have received the prize.’

However, Lefkowitz believes the committee generally gets it right. ‘There are always going to be many Nobel prize-worthy people and, of course, there is going to be difference of opinion on who deserves it but generally I think they do a good job.’