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Why it's so hard to guess who's going to get a Nobel Prize

The short list is secret, as are the nominators, and documents revealing the juicy details are sealed from public view for 50 years.

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Katie Hunt
CNN — The short list is secret, as are the nominators, and documents revealing the juicy details are sealed from public view for 50 years.

The Nobel Prizes for Physics, Chemistry and Medicine are the acme of scientific achievement -- honoring great minds and life-changing discoveries. But predicting who will be summoned to Stockholm and win the accolades, which are announced next week, is easy to get wrong.

That doesn't mean that people don't try.

Some look at which scientists have won so-called predictor prizes like the Lasker Awards for medical science, others analyze the fields of study favored by the Nobel Committee and tally how many years pass before a specific field is honored.

Just five fields out of 114 different scientific disciplines account for more than half of Nobel Prizes awarded from 1995 to 2017, according to one recent analysis -- particle physics, atomic physics, cell biology, neuroscience and molecular chemistry.

Complicating matters is that the Nobel selection committee, according to the rules laid down by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel in 1895, can only honor up to three people -- something that is getting harder given the collaborative nature of much scientific research.

Pandemic medicine

Unlike the peace prize, which often raises some eyebrows, the science prizes tend to honor achievements that have withstood the test of time -- last year's prize in chemistry recognized research in the development of lithium batteries from the 1980s that included honoring the oldest winner ever. The distinctions in science are thus less likely to generate controversy.

This means that it's highly unlikely that the fast-moving scientific research into Covid-19 will be featured, although many think that a drug to treat the disease or vaccine to stop its spread is a potential future winner.

That said, Gilbert Thompson, professor emeritus of clinical lipidology at Imperial College London, thinks that the committee could honor two scientists, Max Cooper and Jacques Miller, whose discovery about the organization and function of the human immune system, in particular B cells and T cells, is underpinning vaccine research.

"That work took place a long time ago but it just happens that it's highly appropriate to what's going on right now," said Thompson, who has written a book on the achievements of Nobel Prize winners. "It's conceivable that the Nobel Prize committee will latch onto that."

Eman Ghanem, membership director at Sigma Xi, a global association of around 30,000 scientists that includes some 200 Nobel prize winners, is hopeful that there will be a female Nobel Laureate in science after an all-male lineup in 2019.

Last year, the Nobel Committee asked nominators to consider diversity in gender, geography and topic.


David Pendlebury, a senior citation analyst at Clarivate Analytics, since 2002 has made 54 correct predictions (though not usually in the right year) by analyzing how often a scientist's key papers are cited by peers. Out of some 50 million scientific papers indexed since 1970, only 5,700 (or 0.01%) have been cited 2,000 or more times, and this is the pool from which his prediction are drawn.

"We're not saying that these particular people are going to win in a particular year," Pendlebury said. "We're saying these people are Nobel class and are likely to win a Nobel prize at some point.

For the physics prize, one of three contending groups Pendlebury lists is Carlos Frenk of Durham University, Julio Navarro of University of Victoria in Canada and Simon White, former director at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, for their work into galaxy formation, cosmic structure and dark matter. However, Pendlebury said a win this year is unlikely because last year's physics prize for the first discovery of planets outside our solar system, led by Princeton astrophysicist James Peebles, was from the same field.

"It's highly cited, essential work, but I think it will probably be a few years till they return to a prize in cosmology," he said. "Though they could prove me wrong."

Conservative choices

The CRISPR gene-editing technology, is often mentioned as a candidate for the chemistry prize, but Pendlebury said it was a potential minefield for a Nobel Committee that likes to play it safe.

While worthy, he said several groups of scientists have been collaborating on gene editing, making it hard to narrow it down to three names. Moreover, the technology had until recently been tied up in patent wrangles. (And that's notwithstanding the ethical concerns that have dogged the technology in the wake of Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who was jailed for creating the world's first gene-edited babies.)

"I think they are making conservative choices on the significance of the science," he said.

For medicine, Pendlebury's picks include Yusuke Nakamura, a Japanese geneticist, whose contributions in pioneering whole genome sequencing gave birth to the field of personalized medicine that has revolutionized cancer treatment; and Lebanese scientist Huda Y. Zoghbi, for her work on neurological disorders including the genetic origins of Rett syndrome, a rare genetic neurological disorder that occurs primarily in girls. She was the 2017 winner of a $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences -- founded by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg.

"She's a very good example of someone who's likely to get Nobel recognition because of the awards she's been getting," Pendlebury said. "It's not just the accumulation of citations. Receiving these top prizes, which are chosen and selected by your peers, you get a stronger and stronger signal of how important this work has been."

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