If the prize is right, it means more than recognition

What’s the point of a prize? Alfred Nobel, probably history’s most famous prize-giver, wanted his awards to have an altruistic influence on human endeavour by recognising those who have brought the ‘greatest benefit to mankind’.  The emphasis on humanity was itself motivated by Nobel’s fear that his legacy would be marked by the inhumane uses of the explosives that built his fortune.

The Nobel categories are therefore fields that support Nobel’s humanitarian goals, and looking at this year’s awards, there is a notable humanitarian, even humanist, flavour. Antiparisitic drugs (physiology and medicine) and DNA repair mechanisms (chemistry) are science at its most beneficent. The particle physics that found neutrinos have mass offers the possibility of uncovering the very reason we exist at all, while the literature prize winner collected first-hand accounts of life in post-Soviet Russia that resonate across cultural divides. And the peace prize recognised the Tunisian factions that steered a course through the storms of the ‘Arab spring’. Lastly, the economics prize explored the detail of the disparity between poverty and plenty. Ironically, although economics isn’t one of Nobel’s original prizes, it is perhaps the most relevant to his goal – studying human behaviour; how we are influenced by resources and rewards or, for example, by prizes and awards. 

The Nobels have, at best, an indirect influence on society. Nobel laureates, and scientists more generally, pursue their work for its intrinsic motivation – the task is its own reward: a challenging problem; an irresistible question. But prizes can exert a direct influence – an extrinsic motivation, in the economists’ jargon. Recent years have seen a rise in such incentivised research prizes, particularly as a tool for philanthropists to marshal minds in the service of social concerns.

The Xprizes, for example, have tackled climate change and space flight, and Cancer Research UK has committed up to £20 million for proposals to tackle its grand challenges every year. The key attribute here is that the excellence is defined beforehand – a measurable, achievable goal, however challenging it may be. As Mark Peplow discusses, such prizes can harness market forces, one of the most powerful motivating factors in society.

But prizes also satisfy another human motivation. Life does not write good theatre, as the saying goes, so we have to create it. We want to know the protagonists, their crises and triumphs. In the list above, I only mention the discoveries, but I’d venture you’re eager to know the laureates’ names too. Why? In a world where we continually seek knowledge through experiment and enquiry, it’s arguable that most discoveries will be made given enough time. So if our aim is knowledge, why should we care about the discoverer? 

But we do care, and we should, because there must be a self in the selfless. The stories penned by prizes motivate others to follow, and the effort of those individuals brings knowledge that belongs to us all.

Chemistry World’s own prize is now open and you can watch our video series on how the Nobel laureates are picked