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Cambridge University Science Magazine
Disclaimer: The contents of this article represent opinions and views shared on Twitter, and do not necessarily constitute peer reviewed scientific research.

Throughout September, discussion and debate in the world of science continued over social media. As usual, Twitter was full of explanatory threads, questions about the academic institution, and dubious science-related humour. In the last few weeks, however, discussion has centred primarily on the Nobel Prize. The awards for Physics, Chemistry and Physiology/Medicine are often seen as the pinnacle of scientific achievement – the recipients are immortalised in the scientific hall of fame, and their winning research receives mainstream recognition and widespread coverage.

This year, the Physics award went to Roger Penrose “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity” and also to Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy”; the Chemistry award went to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna “for the development of a method for genome editing”; and the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to Harvey Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles Rice “for the discovery of Hepatitis C virus”. Given its importance for the world of science and its wider perception, it is unsurprising that Science Twitter was rife with opinions on the award: there were predictions, approvals, disapprovals, commentaries and much more.

One theme emerging from reactions to the awards was excitement at the growing recognition for the contribution of women in science, and the role the awards may play in encouraging more women to pursue a STEM career. Andrea Ghez became only the fourth woman to win a Physics award, and this is the first time two female scientists have won the Chemistry award with no male collaborator. Ghez previously inspired the ‘Finkbeiner test’, a checklist used to help journalists avoid gender biases when reporting science. Much still needs to be done in promoting diversity in academia, but progress is being made.

Many discussions focused on the Chemistry award, which recognized the already world-famous and widely applied CRISPR technology for genome editing. The CRISPR/Cas9 system, modified from the naturally occurring bacterial defence system against alien viral genomes, has allowed incredibly precise in vivo alterations to target DNA sequences through ‘cutting’ of the genome. The technology’s success made the presentation of this award more of a ‘when’ and not ‘if’ scenario, and many took to Twitter to congratulate Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier on their long-predicted Nobel Prize. Other awardees were also congratulated by leading voices in their respective fields for their seminal contributions.

While most agreed that CRISPR deserved its recognition by the Nobel Committee sooner or later, the identity of the awardees proved to be a divisive subject. As with any revolutionary technology, the history of CRISPR has been plagued with various patent disputes and battles for recognition. This debate over the true pioneers of the science was reflected on Twitter, as well as an annoyance by some that the ‘chemistry’ award was once again given to a predominantly ‘biological’ advancement.

These disputes once again opened up the debate about whether the Nobel Prize remains a relevant award in the modern era of science. Many believe that the award is unfair because it fails to acknowledge the widespread contribution from many researchers required for an advancement in science nowadays, instead only recognizing a few select individuals for the research.

Despite these issues, every year the scientific community enjoys the debate and excitement over the prizes, and many will argue that they remain an important bridge between academia and wider society despite their flaws. Until next year, Science Twitter will return to usual proceedings, in all its weird and wonderful glory.

Adiyant Lamba is a news editor at BlueSci.