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The winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be announced Oct. 7

by Bibiana Campos-Seijo
October 3, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 38


Who will get the call from Stockholm on Oct. 7? Nobel season is upon us, and as usual, predictions abound.

This year the pre-Nobel season has been lower profile and shorter than usual. COVID-19 has influenced this, but I also think that this season has been less tense because John B. Goodenough, of the University of Texas at Austin, finally got his Nobel last year for the development of lithium-ion batteries. Many in our community had been rooting for him for some time and were relieved when he received it.

Pre-Nobel season has also been more relaxed because chemists in recent years have been rewarded with Nobels in areas that are squarely chemistry. Once upon a time, chemists thought—fairly or unfairly—that the more biological side of chemistry was getting all the attention when it came to these prizes and that chemistry had lost the Nobel battle to biology.

So, who will win the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry? Rather than guessing, this year I have conducted a very unscientific analysis that I’d like to share with you. The Wolf Prize has been described as “a stepping stone” for the Nobels, according to an article in the Jerusalem Post from January. Although “thirty percent of Wolf Prize recipients . . . have subsequently been selected for Nobel Prizes,” no one who received the Wolf Prize in Chemistry in the last decade went on to get a Nobel.

By comparison, four Wolf Prize in Chemistry recipients from the first decade of the 2000s­—K. Barry Sharpless and Ryoji Noyori in 2001, Ada E. Yonath in 2006, and William E. Moerner in 2008—collected chemistry Nobels (in 2001, 2009, and 2014, respectively). This trend extends to the first decade of the 1990s: four Wolf Prize in Chemistry recipients—Richard R. Ernst in 1991, John A. Pople in 1992, Ahmed H. Zewail in 1993, and Gerhard Ertl in 1998—went on to receive chemistry Nobels (in 1991, 1998, 1999, and 2007, respectively).

For the eight individuals who received the Wolf Prize in Chemistry during the 1990–2010 period and later won a Nobel, the average period of time between receiving the two prizes was 3.75 years. If we round that up to 4 years and look at who won the Wolf Prize in Chemistry in 2016, we might guess that the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry will go to Harvard University’s Stuart L. Schreiber or Rice University’s K. C. Nicolaou. However, as mentioned, the 2010s have not been a good decade for Wolf awardees to receive Nobels, even though the list is packed with talent. In fact, in forecasting the recipients of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, chemists have put forward the names of the 2018 and 2019 winners as potential Nobel recipients. The Wolf Prize in Chemistry went to Omar Yaghi and Makoto Fujita in 2018 for their pioneering work on metal-organic frameworks and porous polymers and to Stephen Buchwald and John F. Hartwig in 2019 for their namesake amination reaction.

Beyond this, CRISPR continues to be a popular choice. With patent disputes still ongoing, however, it is unclear who would be credited for the discovery of the gene-editing technique. It is worth noting that the 2020 Wolf Prize in Medicine went to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, both CRISPR pioneers.

Of course, COVID-19 will affect the Nobel celebrations. The announcements will occur as normal, but the winners and guests will miss the trip to Stockholm. The banquet has been moved to next year, and the ceremony and award lectures will take place virtually.

Expectations are high in terms of the diversity of the prize, especially in scientific disciplines. Scientists have been critical of the lack of diversity, and many have little tolerance for more of the same.

Check out for our coverage of the physiology or medicine prize on Monday, the physics prize on Tuesday, and the chemistry prize on Wednesday.


Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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