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Nobel Prizes have a diversity problem even worse than the scientific fields they honor

In 2007, I served as a consultant for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ deliberations about the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. As a result, I was invited to attend the Nobel ceremonies. Staying at the Grand Hotel with all the awardees, I got to see how scientists – excellent but largely unknown outside their fields – suddenly became superstars.

As soon as they’re announced annually in early October, Nobel laureates become role models who are invited to give seminars all around the world. In Stockholm for the awards, these scientists were interviewed on radio and television and hobnobbed with Swedish royalty. Swedish television aired the events of Nobel week live.

As a chemist who has also investigated how science is done, seeing scientists and their research jump to the top of the public’s consciousness thanks to all the Nobel hoopla is gratifying. But in the 119 years since the Nobel Prizes were first given out, only 3% of the science awardees have been women and zero of the 617 science laureates have been Black. The vast majority of those now-famous role model scientists are white men.

Nobels still reflect another time

Five Nobel Prizes were established according to inventor Alfred Nobel’s will. The first prizes in chemistry, literature, physics and medicine were awarded in 1901. Each prize can be awarded to no more than three people, and prizes may not be awarded posthumously.

Just as with the Oscars for the movie industry, there is pre-Nobel buzz. Scientists try to predict who will be awarded the year’s chemistry, physics and medicine prizes. In the days and weeks following the announcement of the awards, there is a thorough analysis of the winners and their research, as well as sympathizing with those who were overlooked.

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