Homogeneous Demographics in the 2013 Nobel Laureates

Christian Sager

Note: University ranking is based on the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2013.

In a recent conversation with my colleague Lauren Vogelbaum (co-host of TechStuff), she lamented that she hadn't written a lot about women in science lately. As we talked about it, I suggested that maybe it wasn't her at fault, but the lack of attention paid to women of science in general.

For instance, last year the BBC reported that the average Nobel laureate is 61 years old, male and American. That trend continues in 2013, as only one woman was awarded a Nobel Prize this year. Because it has been around for over a hundred years and grants its winners a large sum of money, many recognize the Nobel Prize as a mark of genius. The winners are doing amazing things, like confirming what composes mass or developing digital models of complex chemical processes. But one thing is clear... you're more likely to be recognized by the Nobel selection committees if you're an old white guy currently employed by one of the Top 100 universities in the world.

If you're looking for a brief overview of how the Nobel Prize works, our colleagues at BrainStuff recently did a great video covering it. HowStuffWorks has also explained the prize and pointed out that there's disagreement over the subjective nature of how winners are chosen. For instance, in the fashion of the academic rat race, you're more likely to be awarded when other scholars cite your work.

The lack of diversity in Nobel laureates isn't that surprising, but the variety of explanations out there for why can be unsettling. If you go down the rabbit hole of inquisitors, you'll find a lot of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists among those questioning the committee choices. I don't believe the laureates are chosen based on their ethnicity, or their gender or age. But something about the Nobel process favors uniformity.

Is it nominations from well-connected benefactors? Flaws in the tenure and promotion process of academia? Or is it something as simple as diverse thinkers only just now starting to be recognized for their contributions at large? As Stuff of Genius continues to tell the stories of the growing world of extraordinary innovators, perhaps the answers will become more clear.

Lots More Information

"Nobel Prizes: Is There a Secret Formula to Winning One?" BBC Future. Accessed online October 29, 2013

Robinson, Andrew. "Do Nobel Prizes Reward Genius?" Psychology Today. March 9, 2011. Accessed online October 29, 2013