--Juha Ylä-Jääski (D.Tech.) is President and CEO of Technology Academy Finland. The opinions expressed are his own.--
The 2013 Nobel season is once again gorging on a Grand Cru vintage of scientific achievement. Today, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to three scientists, Levitt, Karplus and Warshel, whose multinational collaboration laid the foundation for the computer models crucial for most advances in chemistry today. Yesterday, Peter Higgs and Francois Englert won the Nobel Prize for physics for conceiving the so-called "God particle" which explains why the Universe has mass. Another trio were recognised on Monday when the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to Rothman, Schekman and Südhof for solving the mystery of how the cell transports crucial cargo.
The Nobel Prize once stood alone commanding the attention of the world’s media. Though it remains pre-eminent, as shown by the media hordes that have descended on Oslo, the trophy cabinet of international prizes has been stuffed full in recent years. There is the brand new Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering in the UK, the AM Turing Award, the Abel Prize, the Asahi and the Kyoto prize. The Russian billionaire Yuri Milner recently endowed the Fundamental Physics Prize by offering $3 million to each winner – three times the prize money given out by the Nobel Foundation. Perhaps most star-studded of all is the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences - a joint enterprise by tech superstars including Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook.
But with this glut of prizes has also come a backlash. A common criticism is that the same already successful few candidates tend to attract most of the prizes. Often, it is said, they reward scientists who are already renowned and successful rather than the unknown pioneer labouring in obscurity. A fairer criticism is perhaps that they reward innovation that rightfully should be seen as a result of collective efforts rather than individual genius. Last year, an editorial in Scientific American argued that the Nobel awards process has to recognise that major scientific progress is now brought about by teamwork rather than the two or three figures that win prizes.
As the CEO of Technology Academy Finland, which awards one of Europe’s largest science prizes, the Millennium Technology Prize, I’m aware that these criticisms need to be answered. Those of us involved in awarding prizes must acknowledge that awarding prizes is necessarily subjective; they are not a matter of mathematical precision. Choosing a winner from a wide range of disciplines is as imprecise as the choice of any book or painting to win an arts prize. One can never be entirely comparing like with like, unless the field examined is extremely narrow. How do we equate the work of programmers, whose work will make untold improvements in our day-to-day lives with the medical, life enhancing possibilities of stem-cell research?