Field of Science

A Nobel Prize for "fundamental biology"?

There's a letter in this week's Nature by a William Hughes from Carleton University in Ottawa lamenting the fact that there's no Nobel Prize for "fundamental biology". It's somewhat ironic to hear a biologist complaining about a lack of a biology prize after several chemists have complained that biologist have poached the chemistry prize from them.

But the important question is, what does Hughes mean by "fundamental biology"? In his letter he makes it clear that he is talking about an award that recognizes all discoveries in biology and not just those related to medicine. But the problem is that several of the biological discoveries that were later recognized by the Nobel Prize in medicine had little to do with medicine when they were made. For instance what would you say about the discovery of telomerase (2009)? Or cell cycle control (2000)? Or any number of discoveries in molecular biology including restriction enzymes, DNA and RNA polymerase, phosphorylation or indeed, the structure of DNA itself? By any definition all of these discoveries seem to fall under the "fundamental biology" rubric and I think even Hughes would have a hard time denying this. It just happened that most of them also turned out to be important for medicine (and why not, medicine is after all grounded in biology).

Perhaps Hughes means discoveries in "non-molecular" biology including ecology, evolutionary biology. But I believe that these fields are often honored by the Crafoord Prize which has gone to thinkers like E O Wilson, Robert May and William Hamilton. Maybe the Crafoord doesn't quite satisfy biologists' Nobel cravings because only one prize is awarded every year to different fields. It's also sort of odd that the Nobel Prize in medicine was only once awarded to ethologists studying animal behavior, and perhaps they should hand out more of those. But in any case, I think there have been ample prizes awarded to fundamental biological discoveries, so it doesn't seem very meaningful to me to institute a separate prize for biology. And ultimately of course, there's not much point getting hung up over any of these prizes since the work done by these scientists speaks for itself.

But maybe having a separate biology prize would make chemists feel happier. Which may not be an entirely good thing.

1 comment:

  1. I sort of lost you with the list of biology discoveries that were (supposedly) rewarded without any instance of benefit to medicine.

    The riddles of aging relates to telomeres (one theory suggests) and the bandwagon will jump on the mysterious properties of Telomerase to explain this.
    I'm certain you know that Cancer's main path to understanding is cell cycle control (maybe I missed your point?)

    I'm reminded of the theme of birth control in science (how a drug given for something entirely different, I believe it was actually to promote fertility, ended up messing with the release of the egg, and made the women unable to 'lay an egg' - the jist - and this led to the 'well lets give this to someone who doesn't want to make babies' idea.
    Antidepressants and their histories relate to this - if anything it shows you how medicine's goal is not to explore the mysteries of the body, or to delve deeper into what exactly those little balls (drugs) are doing and where are they going and landing on and how does that create this attribute, but allieviating human suffering - vain glory, but humanity promoting (which often backfires-see lobotamy, early antidepressants wrecking havoc on memory, any drug - we forgot the body is an enclosed forest of 4 billion years of made and messed with parts, everything going this way and that, and what we call 80 years of life is this forest of goobly goop 'working' - but the problem is you don't understand all these car parts nature evolved, doing this and that, growing then eliminating this, thats stuck there, that arches, I wonder if this will fit here, etc because we're all draped in a stage velvet like curtain called skin,


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