What science’s top prize and the Oscars have in common.
The one thing we know for sure about the 88th Academy Awards, now just days away, is that none of the winners in the five acting and directing categories will be African American. As has been thoroughly documented under the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, for the second year in a row no blacks have been nominated for those coveted honors.
But hardly anyone is talking about an award that’s even less diverse than the Oscars: The Nobel Prize. No black scientist has ever won a Nobel. Probably the closest anyone has come is Sir Arthur Lewis, a native of the Caribbean island-nation of St. Lucia and winner of a Nobel Prize in economics in 1979. In the three generally regarded science categories — physics, chemistry, and medicine — blacks have been perfectly shut out.
In fact, it’s hard to find a black scientist who’s garnered even a single nomination for science’s top prize. Not Daniel Hale Williams. Not Ernest Everett Just. Not Percy Julian. Not Herman Branson.* Women and Latinos have also struggled to crack the Nobel’s glass ceiling, particularly in physics, where just two women — and no Latinos — are among the laureates.
The century-long drought shows no signs of letting up. Just ask Thomson Reuters. Since 2002, the data analytics company has successfully predicted more than two dozen Nobel Prize winners using a number-crunching approach that takes into account journal citations and other statistics. But, to all appearances, none of the scientists currently on its running list of probable future laureates are black.
Why so white? It’s no secret that African-Americans are underrepresented in science — making up between 4% and 5% of new STEM doctorates. So it stands to reason that what few black scientists there are would have fewer Nobel-worthy achievements to their collective name. But a close look at the award’s history suggests additional forces at work and reveals trends that are eerily similar to those seen for the Academy Awards.
For instance, just as certain types of movies — war films, biopics — tend to do well at the Oscars, certain types of scientific research do well in Stockholm. Of the past 20 Nobel Prizes in Physics, twelve were awarded for work in either particle physics or quantum mechanics. If your life work is, say, unraveling the mysteries of turbulence or inventing materials that can bend light backwards, your chances are grim no matter how brilliant you are.
In Hollywood, who you work with often matters just as much as the work you do, and the same can be said of the Nobels. Take Isidor Isaac Rabi, who in 1944 was awarded the physics prize for his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance. Three of his graduate students went on to win Nobel Prizes. In turn, six of their graduate students became laureates, including 2012 winner Dave Wineland. Rabi and his academic progeny aren’t outliers, either. Throughout its history, the Nobel has shown a tendency to bounce back and forth between a select few academic families.
Almost certainly, the above trends stem in part from the structure of the contest itself: To cast a nomination for a Nobel, you typically first have to become a laureate yourself. (You could also become head of a world-class research institution or a member of the Swedish Academy.) On its face, that seems like a reasonable way to pre-screen nominations. But the problem is a thing called affinity bias.
Writing in The Atlantic, Megan McArdle described affinity bias this way: “People like people who are like them. They collect subordinates or students with whom they have common bonds. They mentor those people, help them move up through the system, reproduce themselves throughout the organization.”
Despite our best intentions, we all suffer to some extent from affinity bias. So when it’s left largely up to yesterday’s laureates to choose today’s — or to hire the graduate students who might go on to become tomorrow’s — those laureates are likely to select people who remind them of themselves. Which brings us to the last thing the Nobels and Oscars have in common: Inertia. New generations of winners tend to think, look, and have the same world view as the old ones.
Of course, it’s not impossible for a young black upstart to win over science’s kingmakers, and eventually one will. But the deck will be stacked from the start.
*We searched the Nobel Prize archives and couldn’t find any black scientists who had been nominated for a prize in Chemistry, Physics, or Medicine. If you can, let us know!
Featured image courtesy of Queens University