If you ask, most scientists will tell you that the Nobel Prizes are overrated. While there is no question that those who win Nobel Prizes have made important discoveries, virtually no scientist believes that the most important discoveries are always rewarded with a Nobel. Some crucial scientific fields (earth and climate sciences, evolutionary biology) don't fit well into the three prize categories of physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine. Sometimes a major scientific advance is made by many scientists, and a Nobel Prize never goes to more than three. (The first human genome sequence, produced by hundreds of scientists, will go down in history as a major achievement, but it won't earn anyone a Nobel Prize.) But the most common reason important discoveries don't earn a Nobel is that there are simply too many significant scientific advances for an annual prize to cover.
This last point is crucial. In the run-up to the Nobel announcements each October, scientists speculate about who the year's contenders are, and most scientists could name several eligible people who've done Nobel-caliber work. There is no shortage of outstanding science to recognize with a Nobel Prize, meaning that members of the Nobel Prize committees can choose from among several people whose work is worthy of recognition. Unfortunately, even though they have a choice, the prize committees consistently choose to recognize men over women. This fact risks making the Nobel Prize not just overrated, but also irrelevant.
The numbers are damning. In the past 20 years, Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and medicine were awarded to 145 men, and just six women. (Five won the prize in medicine and one in chemistry; the physics prize hasn't been awarded to a woman in the past two decades.) Such an extreme skew toward men might have been considered at least partially excusable in the mid-20th century, when the institutional barriers for women in science were substantially higher than they are now. Today, while women still face real discrimination in science, the Nobel committees have no excuse. There are more than enough women who have done Nobel-caliber work.
To highlight the scientific work of these women, I've picked two who have made discoveries that easily rank alongside the science recognized by the Nobels. They are Americans whose papers I can read and judge first-hand, because their work is close to my field. Scientists in different fields could easily pick other accomplished women, and from elsewhere around the globe.
Mary-Claire King, a geneticist at the University of Washington, is already famous without the help of a Nobel Prize. King has won nearly every major prize in biology except the Nobel, and she's even been played by Helen Hunt in a movie. King's career includes major achievements in evolutionary biology and human rights, which fall outside of the purview of the science Nobels. But one of her biggest scientific accomplishments—mapping the first gene linked with an inherited predisposition for breast cancer—broke important new ground in the field of genetic medicine, which today is a major focus of biomedical research. King's discovery is a strong candidate for the Nobel Prize in medicine.
In the past 20 years, Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and medicine were awarded to 145 men, and just six women.
King began studying the genetics of breast cancer in the mid-1970s, years before any gene had been linked with any type of cancer. Scientists knew that genetics played some role in cancer—physicians since the ancient Greeks have known that some cancers run in families. King's research led her to conclude that an inherited predisposition to breast cancer was probably caused, in most cases, by a mutation in just one or two genes. By studying affected families, she estimated that a woman who inherited mutations in this as-yet unknown gene had an 82 percent risk of developing breast cancer by age 70. If that gene were known, women with a family history of breast cancer could be tested to determine if they were at risk.
As King later wrote, "the best way to demonstrate the existence of such a [cancer pre-disposing] gene was to find it." It took her 17 years, but, in 1990, King and her colleagues published a breakthrough paper that narrowed down the location of this breast cancer gene to a region of chromosome 17. A few years later, both King and a competing group from the company Myriad Genetics finally managed to isolate the gene itself, which King named BRCA1. (In a controversial move, Myriad took out patents on this gene, which were eventually invalidated by the Supreme Court in 2013.) Genetic testing for mutations in BRCA1 is now standard for women with a family history of breast cancer.
Joan Steitz, a biochemist at Yale University, did her Nobel-caliber work in the late '70s and early '80s—about two decades before her husband, Thomas Steitz, did the work that won him the Nobel. Tom Steitz won for his pioneering studies of the ribosome, a key piece of cellular machinery that converts genetic information, encoded in our DNA, into the working parts of a cell. Joan Steitz also made a fundamental discovery about the way in which our genes are expressed. Genes, just like the raw footage of a Hollywood movie, need to be spliced to create the final product. Joan Steitz discovered the components of the cell that do the splicing, which she and her team described in a key 1980 paper.
At the time Steitz made her discovery, the fact that genes were spliced was well-known, but the complex and subtle biological role of gene splicing was not appreciated. Mutations that affect gene splicing have now been linked with diseases ranging from cancer to depression and schizophrenia. Scientists now understand that one gene can be spliced in different ways to produce different functional forms. We carry about 20,000 protein-encoding genes, but these genes are expressed as more than 80,000 distinct versions. Joan Steitz's work is critical for understanding how this complex biology takes place, and certainly deserves a Nobel Prize in chemistry or medicine.
While Joan Steitz hasn't won the Nobel, both she and King have won the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize—a prize established by Nobel laureate Paul Greengard, who used his Nobel money to set up a prize that "recognizes the accomplishment of outstanding women scientists." This is something the Nobel prize committees have repeatedly failed to do. It's true that women in science still face discriminatory barriers that prevent them from pursuing a career in science, which means that fewer women than men hold senior positions in research labs. In spite of this, there are enough women who have made Nobel-caliber discoveries for the Nobel committees to choose from. A science prize that neglects the contributions of women is a prize that deserves to be ignored.