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Criticism and Controversies Around the Nobel Prizes

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Since 1901, mankind has developed a particular fascination with the Nobel prizes, and justifiably so. The honour immortalises the awardees and guarantees recognition for a lifetime. Despite this fact, it has always engendered controversies from critics and commoners alike. Why is that so?

The Nobel prizes are awarded by the Swedish Academy and Norwegian Nobel Committee, as mentioned by Alfred Nobel in his will. Nobel gave away 94% of his property or 31 million Swedish Kronor towards the establishment of the five Nobel prizes- in medicine or physiology, chemistry, physics, literature, and peace to recognise individuals who contribute remarkably in these respective fields. This pursuit has however been thwarted by criticisms and controversies over time. From awarding Bob Dylan the Nobel prize for literature in 2016 to the Nobel peace prize to Barack Obama, the prizes have innocuously been marred by sceptics and its credibility questioned repeatedly. After awarding Barack Obama in 2009, the committee responsible for delegating this award (Norwegian Nobel committee) came under fire for this decision. People from around the world cited lack of insight by the Norwegian Committee and demanded a rollback of the honour. The following are a few issues that have been raised multiple times since the establishment of the prizes-

1. The Nobel prizes in the sciences can recognize only three people at maximum: This plays a major role in harbouring disinterest among organisations which work collaboratively towards finding discoveries. In today’s time, thousands of people are involved in a single invention or discovery, but only three people can be bestowed with the honor. Hence, organisations cannot be awarded the Nobel prize in sciences, thus derecognising the effort of multiple other authors worthy of this distinction.

2. Nobel prizes cannot be awarded posthumously: The average age of a Nobel laureate hovers around 59, and it’s a well known fact that most laureates are awarded in their latter years. The prizes are supposed to be awarded for achievement in the year preceding the awards, but that doesn’t always happen in the case of science Nobels. A lot of times, the prize is awarded years after so that the research is not debunked by another discovery. Many researchers have missed out despite their great contributions as the prizes aren’t given posthumously. (The prizes have been awarded posthumously only twice, in rare cases.)

3. Nobel prizes don’t recognise the social sciences: Considering that the Nobel prize in economics isn’t technically a Nobel and is awarded in the memory of Alfred Nobel by Sveriges Riksbank, critics have argued for similar prizes in other fields of social sciences like anthropology, psychology, and sociology.

4. Gender, race, and why they matter: Out of the 200 Nobel laureates that have been awarded for Physics, only two have been women (1% of the total). Only one woman has won the Nobel in economics since it was first given in 1969, and similar patterns have been observed in the Nobel prize for literature and chemistry where the representation of women is not indicative of their contributions in the fields. Racial bias has been another bone of contention, as white Europeans and Americans continue to form a majority of the winners’ lot.

Another year of the Nobel week gone by, the world is doe-eyed to witness how the winners would continue their legacy. Even though the world’s most prestigious awards have garnered praise, sparked courage, and evoked hope in many there are a few controversies that dampen the shine of the prestigious medals.


Feature Image Credits: TUM

Vijeata Balani
[email protected]


A soon-to-be third year Commerce student at Jesus and Mary College. Can be found browsing quizzes on Slideshare or re-reading the Harry Potter series for the nth time. To discuss the insipidness of life or if in need of any assistance, drop a "hi" at [email protected]. (fun facts and interesting leads are always appreciated)

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