FRIDAY, 16 OCTOBER 2020Disclaimer: 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.
“My wish is that this will provide a positive message to the young girls who would like to follow the path of science, and to show them that women in science can also have an impact through the research that they are performing.”
- 2020 Chemistry Laureate Emmanuelle Charpentier pic.twitter.com/pKZlrTZmXw
— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 11, 2020
The new Nobel laureate in physics, Andrea Ghez, indirectly inspired an important test in science writing, the “Finkbeiner Test,” created to help reporters avoid gender bias. To pass this test….1/7
— Nell Greenfieldboyce (@nell_sci_NPR) October 6, 2020
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.
Congrats to my colleague Jennifer Doudna who is not just a great scientist, but also, and more importantly, a great person. And congrats to Basic Science, which was honored here as much as the individuals.
— Michael Eisen (@mbeisen) October 7, 2020
Congratulations to Roger Penrose on his share in the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on Black Holes. He's also a terrific author - The Emperors New Mind is one of the books I loved when I was starting out in physics, including a superb intro to quantum mechanics.
— Brian Cox (@ProfBrianCox) October 6, 2020
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.
I like CRISPR as much as the next person, but do chemists ever get mad that biology gets all of their Nobel prizes?
— Synaptically Yours, but SpoOoOoky (@EmbraceTheCoda) October 7, 2020
If you aren't a scientist, know that it is extremely funny that the nobel committee decided not to include feng zhang (MIT) or george church (harvard) in this award https://t.co/BAMpvG2xFR
— busy applying for a grant (@endlesswario) October 7, 2020
Very disappointed that the @NobelPrize committee failed to include Francis Mojica among the Awardees. It is only fair that the person that (a) discovered the sequences, (b) figured out that they were a bacterial immune system!, and (c) named them as CRISPR- shares this prize.
— Fernandez-Capetillo (@KP_twitt_llo) October 7, 2020
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.
Hey New York Times, I fixed your headline to reflect how science actually works. pic.twitter.com/l5J7Ggx40X
— Tanentzapf Lab (@TanentzapfLab) October 7, 2020
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.