Nobel Prize in science: Often politics, not merit, governs the choice

| July 26, 2015 | 0 Comments

Nobel Prize in science

Often politics, not merit, governs the choice

by Pushpa M. Bhargava

Published in: The Tribune, 9th Nov.2008.

Nobel Prizes are rightly regarded as the highest recognition that one can get in areas like physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine. It is also true that for every Nobel Prize winner, there are a number of equally (sometimes even more) deserving who did not win the prize.

For example, how many would have heard of Waksman who received a Nobel Prize for the discovery of streptomycin, which was hardly exciting after the Nobel Prize to Fleming for his discovery of penicillin? On the other hand, J.D. Bernal who co-discovered operational research and is considered to be one of the most brilliant and productive physicists of the last century, and J.B.S. Haldane, never received the prize.

Then there are those who may not have been known widely or publicly because of their low-profile lifestyle but who surely deserved a Nobel Prize. Amongst those whom I have known well, I believe Alex Rich (who discovered polyribosomes that act as a platform for synthesis of proteins in all living cells, and the three-dimensional structure of t-RNA which acts as the pawn broker in the transfer of information from DNA to protein in all living material), Paul Zamecnik (the discoverer of t-RNA which is one of the most important and universal constituents of all cells), the late Seymour Benzer (who, amongst other major discoveries, also discovered the first behavioural mutants in living systems and worked out methods to separate and study them), the late G.N. Ramachandran (the best known Indian biologist) and Premkumar Reddy (who discovered the first mutation in a normal cell that leads to cancer and is one of the hundred most cited scientists in the world), have been worthy of a Nobel Prize.

There are also cases where a Nobel Prize should have been awarded but was not because of (almost certainly) a sex bias. Two examples are of Lisa Meitner, the physicist who made vital contributions to nuclear physics and the subsequent nuclear revolution, along with scientists like Niels Bohr (who did receive a Nobel Prize), and Rosalind Franklin whom I knew and who, it is widely believed, should have shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery of structure of DNA, which was given to Francis Crick, Jim Watson and Maurice Wilkins. Between Wilkins and Franklin, the appropriate choice should have been Franklin but Wilkins was the head of the laboratory and Rosalind a very shy and modest (and a very pretty) woman!

At least two Nobel Prizes have been given for discoveries that were subsequently proven to be wrong. Heinrich Wieland was given a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1927 for the discovery of the structure of cholic acid, which structure was proven to be wrong within a year of the award. And in 1959, two of my friends (now no more), Severo Ochoa and Arthur Kornberg, received a Nobel Prize for the discovery of enzymes (biological catalysts) that carry out the synthesis of RNA and DNA (chemicals responsible for heredity in living systems) which turned out to be the wrong enzymes.

There are, however, cases where there are reasons for far more serious complaint. I will mention two such cases. The first case is of Sam Weiss who discovered the enzyme (enzymes are biophysical catalysts and are mostly proteins), RNA polymerase, that makes RNA which has a replica of the genetic information contained in the DNA of all living cells. RNA (ribonucleic acid) is an essential constituent of all cells excepting certain viruses, and performs many important functions such as in protein synthesis; it also acts as a genetic material of certain viruses.

If one were to choose the most important enzyme out of the thousands known, RNA polymerase will probably be voted at the top. Ochoa received the Nobel Prize for discovering the wrong enzyme for making RNA. Sam Weiss’ discovery of the right enzyme was far more important and central to modern biology, but he was ignored for he was self-effacing.

But perhaps, the most glaring mistake the Nobel Foundation has ever committed is in regard to the award of the Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine announced on October 6, 2008 to Luc Montagnier, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, and Harald zur Hausen. While I welcome this recognition of the work of Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi on the AIDS-causing virus, HIV, I am shocked that Robert Gallo, the co-discoverer of the virus, has been excluded from the award.

I have known both Bob Gallo and Luc Montagnier well for nearly four decades, and say this against the background of intimate knowledge and understanding of their scientific work; with Luc Montagnier, I have a joint publication (Journal of Membrane Biology: 1926, 26, 1-17).

Bob Gallo was responsible for creating the first awareness — both in the scientific community and in the public — of the virus. His work on HIV and AIDS has both depth and breadth that has not been excelled by any other scientist. He is also accredited with other major discoveries such as of the human leukemia-causing viruses and interleukin-2. He is one of the hundred most highly cited scientists in the world and is a winner of virtually every major scientific award, including the Lasker Award which is widely considered as a prelude to the Nobel Prize.

Bob Gallo also has had the courage to make mistakes and then later recognise that he made a mistake. He has been extremely vocal and has known the joy of living. I found it difficult to make Luc Montagnier smile, while Bob Gallo’s laughter could be heard across the laboratory’s corridor. Both Luc and Bob enjoy excellent wine. But then, there is a lot more (such as company of pretty women!) for a man to enjoy life. In this respect — as in respect of scientific accomplishments — Bob has had a clear edge over Luc. Was all this a fault?

This is not to imply that a Nobel Prize should not have been given to Harald zur Hausen. Surely, it could have been given in the following year. Alternatively, Bob Gallo, Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi could have shared a Nobel Prize next year. The above exclusion of Bob Gallo would probably go down in history as the worst mistake ever made in the history of Nobel Prizes.

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