Field of Science

2016 Nobel Prize picks

The nice thing about Nobel Prizes is that it gets easier to predict them every year, simply because most of the people you nominate don't win and automatically become candidates for the next year (note however that I said "easier to predict", not "easier to correctly predict"). That's why every year you can carry over much of the same list of likely candidates as before.

Having said that, there is a Bayesian quality to the predictions since the previous year's prize does compel you to tweak your priors, even if ever so slightly. Recent developments and a better understanding of scientific history also might make you add or subtract from your choices. For instance, last year the chemistry prize was awarded for the discovery of DNA repair systems, so that might make it a bit less likely for a biological discovery to be recognized this year. 

This time as in previous years, I have decided to separate the prizes into lifetime achievement awards and specific discoveries. There have been fewer of the former in Nobel history and I have only three in mind myself, although the ones that do stand out are no lightweights - for instance R B Woodward, E J Corey, Linus Pauling and Martin Karplus were all lifetime achievement awardees. If you had to place a bet though, then statistically speaking you would bet on specific discoveries since there have been many more of these. So here goes:

Lifetime achievement awards

Harry Gray and Steve Lippard: For their pioneering and foundational work in the field of bioinorganic chemistry;work which has illuminated the workings of untold number of enzymatic and biological processes including electron transfer.

Stuart Schreiber and Peter Schultz: For their founding of the field of modern chemical genetics and their impact on the various ramifications of this field in chemistry, biology and medicine. Schreiber has already received the Wolf Prize this year so that improves his chances for the Nobel. The only glitch with this kind of recognition is that a lot of people contributed to the founding of chemical biology in the 1980s and 90s, so it might be a bit controversial to single out Schreiber and Schultz. The Thomson-Reuters website has a Schreiber prediction, but for rapamycin and mTOR; in my opinion that contribution, while noteworthy, would be too narrow and probably not sufficient for a prize.

Robert Langer for his extensive contributions to drug delivery: Much of what Langer does is actually chemistry, but his practical impact has been on medicine so a prize for him would lie more squarely in medicine. It's clear though that he deserves some kind of lifetime recognition.

Specific awards

John Goodenough and Stanley Whittingham for lithium-ion batteries: This has been on my list for a very long time. Very few science-based innovations have revolutionized our basic standard of living the way lithium-ion batteries have. Generally speaking, recognition for the invention of specific devices have been rather rare, with the charged-coupled device (CCD) and the integrated circuit being exceptions. More importantly, a device prize was given out just two years ago in physics (for blue light-emitting diodes) so based on the Bayesian argument stated above, it might make it a bit unlikely for another device-based invention to win this year. Nonetheless, a prize for lithium ion batteries more than most other inventions would conform to the line in Alfred Nobel's will about the discovery that has "conferred the greatest benefits on mankind."

Franz-Ulrich Hartl and Arthur Harwich for their discovery of chaperones: This is clearly a discovery which has had a huge impact on our understanding of both basic biological processes as well as their therapeutic relevance. However, as often happens with the chemistry prize, this one could also go to medicine.

Krzysztof Matyjaszewski for atom-transfer radical polymerization, Barry Sharpless for click chemistry, Chi-Huey Wong for oligosaccharide synthesis and Marvin Caruthers for DNA synthesis: It's highly unlikely that these three gentlemen will receive any prize together, but I am grouping them under the general title of "organic and polymer synthesis" for convenience.

Matyjaszewski's name has been tossed around for a while, and while I am no expert in the field it seems that his ATRP method has had enough of a practical and commonplace impact to be a serious contender; plus an award for polymer chemistry has been long due. Click chemistry has also been extensively applied, although I am less certain of its industrial use compared to say, the undoubted applications of palladium-catalyzed chemical reactions.

In the world of biopolymers, oligosaccharide synthesis has always been an important field which in my opinion has received the short end of the stick (compared to the glamorous world of proteins and nucleic acids, lipids and carbohydrates have always been the black sheep) so recognizing Wong might be a kind of redemption. On the other hand, recognizing Caruthers for DNA synthesis (perhaps along with Leroy Hood who automated the process) seems to be an obvious honor in the Age of Genomics. Hood has also been highlighted in the public eye recently through a new biography.

The medicine prize

As is traditionally the case, several of the above discoveries and inventions can be contenders for the medicine prize. However we have left out what is potentially the biggest contender of all until now.

Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Feng Zhang for CRISP-Cas9: I don't think there is a reasonable soul who thinks CRISPR-Cas9 does not deserve a Nobel Prize. In terms of revolutionary impact and ubiquitous use it almost certainly belongs in the same shelf that houses PCR and Sanger sequencing. 

There are two sets of questions I have about it though: Firstly, whether an award for it would still be rather premature. While there is no doubt as to the broad applicability of CRISPR, it also seems to me that it's rather hard right now to apply it with complete confidence to a wide variety of systems. I haven't seen numbers describing the percentage of times that CRISPR works reliably, and one would think that kind of statistics would be important for anyone wanting to reach an informed decision on the matter (I would be happy to have someone point me to such numbers). While that infamous Chinese embryo study that made the headlines last year was quite flawed, it also exposed the problems with efficacy and specificity that still bedevil CRISPR (these are problems similar to the two major problems for drugs). My personal take on it is that we might have to wait for just a few more years before the technique becomes robust and reliable enough to thoroughly enter the realm of reality from one of possibility.

The second question I have about it is the whole patent controversy, which if anything seems to have become even more acrimonious since last year, reaching worthy-of-optioning-movie-rights level of acrimonious in fact. Generally speaking Nobel Prizes try to stay clear of controversy, and one would think that the Nobel committee would be especially averse to sullying their hands with a commercial one. The lack of clear assignment of priority that is being played out in the courts right now not only tarnishes the intellectual purity of the discovery, but on a more practical level it also makes the decision to award the prize to all three major contenders (Doudna, Charpentier and Zhang) difficult. Hopefully, as would be fitting for a good novel, the allure of a Nobel Prize would make the three protagonists reach an agreement to settle their differences over a few beers. But that could still take some time. A different way to look at the whole issue however is to say that the Nobel committee could actually heal the divisions by awarding the prize to the trio. Either way, a recognition of CRISPR is likely going to be one of the most publicly debated prizes of recent times.

It's also interesting to note that the folks at Thomson Reuters have cited only George Church and Feng Zhang in their picks. A prize only for the duo that leaves out the Berkeley scientists would likely ignite a bitter controversy that might make the controversy over the MRI prize pale in comparison. I don't think any kind of CRISPR recognition that cites only Church and Zhang would be good for the reputation of either the Nobel Prize or for science as a whole.

The bottom line in my mind: CRISPR definitely deserves a prize, and its past results and tremendous future potential may very well tip the balance this year, but it could also happen that the lack of robust, public vindication of the method and the patent controversy could make the recognition seem premature and delay the actual award.

Craig Venter, Francis Collins, Eric Lander, Leroy Hood and others for genomics and sequencing: The split here may be pretty hard here and they might have to rope in a few consortiums, but as incomplete and even misleading as the sequencing of the human genome might have been, there is little doubt that it was a signal scientific achievement deserving of a Nobel Prize.

Alec Jeffreys for DNA fingerprinting and assorted applications: Alec Jeffreys is another perpetual favorite on the list and one whose invention has had a huge societal impact. I have never really understood why he has never been recognized.

Karl Deisseroth, Ed Boyden and others for optogenetics: Optogenetics is another invention that will almost certainly get a prize; its methodology is fascinating and its potential applications for neuroscience are amazing. But its validation seems even more incomplete to me than CRISPR's so it would be rather stunning if they get the prize this year. (On a side note: I am probably among the minority who think that awarding the prize for RNA interference in the 1990s was also too early and quite premature).

Ronald Evans for nuclear receptors: It would be odd if a major class of proteins and therapeutic drug targets went unrecognized.

Bert Vogelstein, Robert Weinberg and others for cancer genes: This again seems like a no-brainer to me. Several medicine prizes have been awarded to cancer genetics so this certainly wouldn't be a novel idea, and it's also clear that Vogelstein and Weinberg have done more than almost anyone else in identifying rogue cancer genes and their key roles in health and disease.

The Thomson-Reuters team has cancer immunotherapy on their shortlist which I think is another good choice.

The physics prize: There is no doubt in my mind that this year's Nobel Prize in physics will be awarded to Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss and Ron Drever for their decades-long dogged leadership and work that culminated in this year's breakthrough discovery of gravitational waves by the LIGO observatory. It's a dead ringer. Drever sadly suffers from dementia, but that certainly should not preclude the Nobel committee from honoring him. For those wanting to know more about the kind of dedication and personality clashes these three men brought to the project, Janna Levin's book which came out earlier this year is a great source.

There is another recognition that I have always thought has been due: a recognition of the ATLAS-CMS collaboration at the LHC which discovered the Higgs boson. A prize for them would emphasize several things: it would put experiment at the center of this important scientific discovery (there would have been no 2013 Nobel Prize without the LHC) and it would herald a new and necessary tradition of awarding the prize to teams rather than individuals, reflecting the reality of contemporary science.

The Thomas-Reuters team predicts a chaos theory prize for the inventors of the OGY method. However it seems to me that a Nobel Prize for chaos theory and the study of dynamical systems - a field that surprisingly has not been recognized yet - should include any number of pioneers featured for instance in James Gleick's amazing book "Chaos", most notably Mitchell Feigenbaum.

So that's it from my side. Let the bloodbath games commence!

Other predictions: Thomson-Reuters, artkqtarks, Everyday Scientist, In the Pipeline


  1. Doudna and Charpentier were Thomson Reuters Citation Laureates for 2015. Zhang and Church are named in 2016. Yes, all CRISPR but a distinction between original publication and demonstration in mice and humans. Nobel 'Rule of Three' creates a terrible choice for committee and Assembly. Many good candidates here, Ash, and agree about Feigenbaum, too. - David Pendlebury

  2. Another option for Schreiber would be to give the prize for the discovery of the role of histone modifications in transcriptional regulation and split it between Michael Grunstein (discovered the importance of histone tails in transcriptional regulation), C David Allis (discovered that histone acetylases regulate transcription) and Schreiber (discovered that HDACs regulate transcription).

  3. Thanks Ash for the write-up. It's refreshing to see science/scientists who are all clearly worthy on short lists. In Economics, a field that admittedly is a "dismal science" primarily because empirical verification is much harder to do, the awardees are often people out of left field (not in a good way imo)

  4. "For Medicine I nominate professor Denis j salmon; Nicholas Lyndon; Bram j duker & cheris L Swear for imatinib in Chornic Myeloid lukemia; my 2 nd choice is Emmanuel Charpentier for CRISPER /cas9 and gene editing and for treatment of cancer and 3rd is Alexender Y Rudanesky shiman Sakagnchi Evan M Shervach for Treg cells"
    For Physics my nominations are 1) prof. Alan Guth for cosmic inflation theory in BigBang. my next nominated person is Mr Rupak Bhattacharya BSc(Calutta Univ) Msc(JU) of residence 7/51 purbapalli ;sodepur; 24 parganas North ;Kolkata 110 ; West Bengal India for his first published Tachyon particle-aFTL particle theory or for his concept in 2011 &2015 of multiple bauble universes in big bang or parallel universe he published in 2015
    "For literature prize my nomination will be in following orders 1) Haruki Murakami of Germany 2) Milan Kundera for his book "Immortality" 3) pauello cohello for his book Brida & The winner stands alone 4) Philip Roth 5) Joyce carol Oates both American novelist"
    For peace prize my nomination for long years together but not yet obtained Gene sharp of Albert Eisenstein institution US or Good Luck Ebele Jonathan of south Africa"
    Prof Dr.Pranab kumar Bhattacharya MD (Calcutta univ) FICPath. professor of Pathology Murshidabad Medical college West Bengal india link URL 1] 2]

  5. I wrote about my guesses. I commented on possible pairing of Schreiber and Allis that Bryan mentioned above.

  6. In the case of chaos theory it's hard to say where physics ends and mathematics begins. There have been a number mathematicians (many of them already dead) working in the field of dynamical systems and it'd be hard to pick any three. With OGY there's at least a clear set of three candidates and the work was published in PRL instead of some mathematics journal. But even that would seem to me a very unusual choice for Nobel physics prize. Usually the prize is given for something more concretely 'physical'.

    I think this year's physics prize is the easiest to predict in many years. In 2013 it was clear what the prize would be for (Higgs boson), but there was at least the question of which ones of the more than three possible candidates would get the prize. This time with LIGO there's really no question.

  7. Shouldn't Holm be with Gray and Lippard for the potential bioinorganic one?

  8. Hi Ash,

    0. Oh wow! The Nobel season is here already, huh? (... May be, sitting jobless in India isn't good for keeping up with the chattering trends in the world of science....)

    1. I too had predicted Kip Thorne, in fact within days of the news: (And I haven't yet read the book you mention....)

    2. Yes, I too have sometimes wondered why Feigenbaum hasn't already been awarded the physics Nobel. And not just because of Gleick's book, though it is excellent, but more as a result of my (cough cough) deepening of the knowledge of mechanics. Perhaps the committees over the years thought that it was mathematics, not physics. ... But then, how do you explain Kohn and Sham? ... Well, the committees for physics and chemistry are different---is that the reason?...

    All the same, discovering not just crucial aspects of a new phenomenon, but also a universal constant about it, using nothing but a hand-held calculator?.... Boy, that's what at least I associate with the Nobel.

    ... Thanks anyway, and best,


  9. The Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology it is mine without any doubt.
    Saleh Awdaly
    The Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology
    Overseas American Citizen

  10. I am extremely delighted to be one of the Nobel Laureates this year.
    Saleh Awdaly
    The Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology
    Overseas American Citizen

  11. I am extremely delighted to be one of the Nobel Laureates this year.
    Saleh Awdaly
    The Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology
    Overseas American Citizen

  12. Should definitely include S. Chandrasegaran -- the inventor of the original gene-editing technology (zinc-finger nucleases) -- as a Nobel candidate in Chemistry [see J Mol Biol. 2016 Feb 27;428(5 Pt B):963-89].


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS