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Nobel Prize

More and more biochemists and life scientists are winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Researchers use bibliographic analysis to spot the prize’s bio trend and suggest ways to refocus the prize back to chemistry; but some chemists think the trend just represents the diversity of chemical sciences

by Sam Lemonick
December 6, 2019


Photograph of the Nobel Prize medal
Credit: Adam Baker/Flickr

Some C&EN readers were not happy with the topic that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The prize went to three researchers who helped develop cryo-electron microscopy, a technique used to make high-resolution structural maps of biological molecules. “Well done and well deserved.... BUT, NOT a Chemistry Nobel,” one commenter wrote online in response to C&EN’s news story. “Does the Nobel committee actually understand what chemists do?” asked another.

These kinds of complaints pop up almost every Nobel season on Twitter and elsewhere, driven by a sense among some chemists that the Nobel Prize in Chemistry is now often awarded to research that isn’t truly chemistry.

But a new analysis suggests that the chemistry prize is, in fact, increasingly awarded to research better described as biochemistry or life sciences. To refocus the prize on what they describe as chemistry and continue to recognize the top science in related disciplines, the researchers suggest changes to the awards, including adding new topical prizes, allowing posthumous awards, and diversifying the committee that chooses the laureates (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2019, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201906266).

In the new study, Jeffrey I. Seeman of the University of Richmond and Guillermo Restrepo of the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences used bibliographic data to make a case that chemistry and biochemistry are related but separate disciplines, a conclusion that echoes others’ research. They analyzed every paper published in 2007 in the journals Angewandte Chemie International Edition and Biochemistry, which served as representatives of chemistry and biochemistry, respectively. Then, Seeman and Restrepo looked for papers that either cited or were cited by those selected publications. The papers in Angewandte Chemie International Edition were most often cited and cited by papers in chemistry journals, while those in Biochemistry cited and were most cited by papers in life science journals, with few journals appearing in both pools. In that year, at least, “Angewandte is using and producing knowledge for the chemistry community, and Biochemistry for the life sciences community,” Restrepo says.


Percentage of Nobel Prizes in Chemistry awarded for research in life sciences or biochemistry between 1901 and 1910

Not everyone is convinced by that argument. “Even though Restrepo and Seeman have data on their side, I find it hard to argue that chemistry and biochemistry are such distinct fields when one of them just has three additional letters tacked on to the front of the same word,” says Stuart Cantrill, chief editor of Nature Chemistry. “Isn’t biochemistry simply the chemistry that happens in living systems?”

The researchers then turned to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. They looked at papers that cited key papers published by Nobel laureates in the years before they won the prize, and examined the research area descriptor terms applied to those citing papers in the Web of Science publication database. For example, they looked at terms such as ‘chemistry and analytical,’ which fall into Web of Science’s physical sciences category, or ‘biophysics,’ which is in life sciences. They concluded that the Nobel Prize in Chemistry has recognized life sciences and physical sciences topics with nearly equal frequency since the 1960s, which is when Seeman says the chemistry Nobel’s focus started to broaden. In contrast, the prizes for physiology or medicine have been awarded almost exclusively to life sciences or biomedicine research.

One cause for the changes with the chemistry prize may be the makeup of the committee that selects laureates, the researchers say. Their data show that the percentage of scientists with life sciences backgrounds sitting on the Nobel Committee for Chemistry has steadily grown to a majority, in step with the rise in chemistry prizes given to life sciences research.

To return the chemistry prize to recognizing achievements in chemistry, Seeman and Restrepo offer several possible changes to the Nobels, some of which others have also suggested. First, they propose adding two new Nobel Memorial prizes, in the mold of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences: one for life sciences and one for interdisciplinary science and technology. This would provide homes for noteworthy work in the life sciences outside of the chemistry prize. Second, they think that the current limit of three laureates per prize should be removed and that posthumous prizes should be allowed. Third, they wish that the committee would adopt analytical methods like the ones that the researchers used to better define researchers’ disciplines, as well as report its selection criteria and plans for keeping up with evolving disciplinary boundaries. Finally, they say they’d also like to see the award committee diversified to include more women, racial minorities, and experts from outside of Scandinavia. The Nobel Committee for Chemistry did not respond to C&EN’s request for an interview about the feasibility of these proposals.


Percentage of Nobel Prizes in Chemistry awarded for research in life sciences or biochemistry between 2001 and 2010

“Chemistry is growing very fast, and you need to rely on data,” Restrepo says. It’s not enough, he says, for the committee—or critics of the prizes—to rely on their intuition about what constitutes chemistry. The researchers say they spoke to a number of current and former members of the committee, and Seeman stressed that they were helpful and supportive. The researchers say they don’t question the committee’s interest in making sure the prizes go to the most deserving researchers, and the two believe that the Nobel organization will welcome their analysis.

One former member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, Anders Liljas, an emeritus professor in the department of biochemistry and structural biology at Lund University, says the authors are right that the science prizes can shift their focus, as he says the chemistry prizes have. “However, I cannot agree with the view that biochemistry does not really belong to chemistry,” he says, adding, “I think we should accept that chemistry is a wider subject than only the more classical branches: inorganic, organic, physical, and analytical chemistry.”

And what do Nobel Laureates think of the analyses and proposals? Frances Arnold, recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work that Seeman and Restrepo classify as biochemistry, thinks their suggestion of more laureates is a good one, but she doesn’t think the committee has lost its way. “Chemistry bleeds into many disciplines, and those disciplines contribute to our understanding of the chemical world. It’s not clear to me why we need a new Nobel Prize, if the Committee embraces this diversity,” she says.

Fraser Stoddart, whose work was recognized by the 2016 prize and which the authors describe as organic chemistry, says he thinks chemists can be too picky about what they consider chemistry, allowing other disciplines to take ownership of certain molecular fields. He also suspects that the Nobel organization is unlikely to change its selection process.

Historian of science Evan Hepler-Smith of Duke University questions the researchers’ analysis. Seeman and Restrepo sought his feedback on their work before publication and quote his critique in their paper. He wondered whether their analysis might also support other possible conclusions, such as biochemistry existing as an autonomous subdiscipline within chemistry rather than as a separate discipline outside of it. But speaking to C&EN, Hepler-Smith also points out that nationality and gender, in addition to research area, affect who wins a Nobel Prize. “Greater equity in the awarding of Nobel Prizes, as Seeman and Restrepo call for in their closing suggestions, is a very worthy goal,” he says.


This story was updated on Dec. 9, 2019, to correct the description of the researchers' bibliographic analysis. They analyzed all papers published in 2007 in Angewandte Chemie International Edition and Biochemistry, not a sample of papers published in 2017.


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