How to win a Nobel Prize

William Campbell, Satoshi Ōmura, and Youyou Tu

How were the Nobel laureates named last week chosen for science’s highest honor? In a series of videos from Chemistry World magazine, a former member of the selection committee for the chemistry prize, Bengt Norden of Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, takes viewers “[b]ehind closed doors” into the selection process.

A Nobel Prize is given not for lifetime achievement, Norden says, but for a particular advance that is considered to “somehow open a door or open our eyes.” Thanks to it, “[w]e will see things in a different way.” The achievement must produce “a substantial impact for the field[,] a richness of consequences[, and have an] almost … paradigmatic importance or breakthrough importance.”

“We need a number of investigations to be sure.” –Bengt Norden

No one nominated for the first time ever wins, Norden says, because of the careful investigations needed to pick a winner. “We need a number of investigations to be sure” that someone should be awarded the prize, he explains. In the days when Norden was investigating nominees himself, he jokes that he was “prepared to crawl in the bushes and spy.” Given the large research groups at work today, it “could be a postdoc,” rather than the senior professor, “who has been the one who came up with the idea and even did the discovery, and we look very seriously into such cases. … Sometimes you may suspect that the … representative of the group might not be the one who really did the work, but then we dig and we dig until we are satisfied and have the picture.”

One thing a would-be Nobel laureate need not do, however, is pursue a career in academe. Most winners are university scientists—but not William C. Campbell, who shares this year's prize in physiology or medicine with Satoshi Omura of Kitasato University in Tokyo for “discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites … that have revolutionized the treatment of some of the most devastating parasitic diseases,” according to the Nobel Prize press release. Campbell’s listed affiliation is Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. His position at Drew, however, is with a program called RISE (Research Institute for Scientists Emeriti), which “offers undergraduates a unique opportunity to engage in research under the supervision of retired industrial scientists,” according to its website. Campbell’s Nobel–winning work developing the antiparasitic drug ivermectin took place during his decades-long career at the pharmaceutical company Merck.

A single dose of ivermectin once a year prevents river blindness, an insect-borne parasitic disease that formerly destroyed the eyesight of countless millions of residents of developing countries, mainly in Africa. Through Merck's donation program, which launched in 1987, the drug is given to poor populations, protecting hundreds of millions of people against the otherwise incurable loss of their ability to see.

Campbell says that receiving the prize was a “huge surprise” because the development of ivermectin “was a great team effort by the people at Merck and Company,” according to The Boston Globe. “I consider myself a representative of that group,” he added, as quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

A Nobel Prize cannot be awarded to more than three individuals, as laid out in the Statues of the Nobel Foundation. As Norden acknowledges in the Chemistry World videos, however, “the fact is that the research group is often very integrated, and it’s difficult to put the point on one person or two or three persons.” Nonetheless, he thinks that awarding the prize to just “one person is ideal. … You make somebody an icon for representing something.” Were a prize given to a “bigger group, it will lose its impact, and that would be sad.” The peace prize has gotten around the limitation by awarding the prize to an organization rather than an individual, and Norden says that the “physicists have been tempted … to give it to a whole institution,” such as CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics near Geneva, Switzerland, but the Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the physics and chemistry prizes, “will not allow that.”

This year’s third physiology or medicine prize winner, Youyou Tu of the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing, was honored for a novel treatment for malaria. Campbell, Omura, and Tu’s discoveries clearly fulfill Norden’s criterion of rich consequences. As the press release states, “[t]he consequences in terms of improved human health and reduced suffering are immeasurable.”

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