Nobel Nonsense

Nobody criticizes the Nobel Prize committees or their selections. The august Swedish academies are just too daunting for criticism. They hand down their verdicts on who is worthy and who is not, and we applaud. That needs to stop. Some Nobel Prize selections over the past couple of years have been so wrongheaded that it needs to be pointed out. This year's prize in medicine or physiology is a case in point. Awarding Luc Montagnier and François Barré-Sinoussi half of the prize for discovering HIV—the virus that causes AIDS—while ignoring Robert Gallo's contribution to that discovery is blatant rewriting of scientific history. I was a young C&EN reporter in San Francisco when the AIDS epidemic broke out in 1981. I started writing about the frightful new disease soon after, even though some members of C&EN's staff thought that the topic was too far afield for a magazine focused on the chemistry enterprise. I was convinced that AIDS was a disease that would become widespread and an important scientific topic in its own right. Many labs plunged into the desperate search for the cause of AIDS. You have to remember that, in the first few years of the epidemic, AIDS could not be detected until symptoms appeared. Identifying a causative agent would give clinicians tools to diagnose and begin to understand the pathology of the disease. Five seminal papers associating a human T-cell leukemia virus (HTLV) with AIDS were published in the May 20, 1983, issue of Science. Two were from the lab of Max Essex at Harvard University, two were from Gallo's lab at the National Cancer Institute, and one was from Montagnier's lab at Pasteur Institute in Paris. None of the papers proved the retrovirus caused AIDS, but the association was a strong one. In a "Research News" story in the same issue of Science, Jean Marx quoted Essex as saying, "I definitely do not want anyone to get the impression that we have proof of cause. What we do have is a good lead." The proof came a year later when Gallo published four consecutive papers in the May 4, 1984, issue of Science. Gallo and his coworkers isolated a retrovirus they called HTLV-III from AIDS patients and patients at risk of developing the disease, began characterizing it, and, most important, grew large quantities of it in the lab. In the July 6, 1984, issue of Science, Montagnier and coworkers reported in two papers that they had isolated a retrovirus they called lymphadenopathy associated virus (LAV) from patients. Later work would show that HTLV-III and LAV were the same virus, which we now call human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Sniping about who should get credit for discovering HIV and who should receive patent royalties for an antibody test for the virus began almost immediately and continued for more than a decade. Gallo was charged with and investigated for scientific misconduct in the early 1990s. It was all a bunch of noise. In the early days of the AIDS epidemic the groups were competing and collaborating and samples were being exchanged on a regular basis. Who cares where the virus sample came from? Gallo's team proved it caused AIDS and succeeded in growing it. This is a fact: In the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, no one in the world did more to advance our understanding of the disease and the virus that causes it than Robert Gallo. Denying Gallo a Nobel Prize for his work on HIV is reminiscent of last year's slight of Gabor Somorjai. Anyone who knows anything about surface science knows he should have shared the chemistry prize that went to Gerhard Ertl. What Somorjai and Gallo share is that they are both somewhat brash, extremely self-confident Americans, which these days seems to be a major impediment to receiving a Nobel Prize. The Nobel committees' decisions on these and other recent prizes jeopardize their credibility and raise questions about why we should continue to take the prizes as seriously as we do. Thanks for reading.

Author: Rudy Baum

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  1. It seems that the importance of any award will eventually diminish–who cares about the Emmys anymore?–but the Swedish Academy is accelerating the process of making the Nobel Prize less meaningful. The exclusions of Somorjai and Gallo were unconscionable. The self-imposed limit of three laureates per prize has forced the Academy to make some really difficult/questionable decisions, e.g., Chalfie over Prasher. The lack of a biology prize has also soured many chemists, as have some particularly dubious awards (fullerenes) when subjects like transition-metal-mediated cross-coupling reactions are still on the table.

    The real question, my fellow Americans, is why are we letting an insignificant country like Sweden dictate what is and is not important? Can’t we get a rich American businessman (one who is still rich) to put up some money so we, as a country, can return to having our way with the rest of the world? Bill, Warren, Donald…call me. One of your names can be synonymous with scientific excellence.

  2. I like the idea, Paul. But if Warren did do it, it’d be called “The Buffet Prize”, which sounds like something you get for 3rd place at a state fair.

    I *do* however like the phrases that would come about: “Yes, Professor, you did win the Priestley this year. Don’t forget… you just might get that invitation to Omaha!”

  3. boo hoo… America did not win… must throw toys out of pram and blame the foreigners… 😉

  4. Are you serious? Being American an impediment to winning the Nobel Prize? I’m not ignoring the ‘brash, self-confident’ modifier – but since many many good scientists have shared that exact attitude at some point in their careers, it hardly seems likely that that’s what kept these fine scientists from winning the prize.

    Why don’t we take a look at the accomplishments of the unknown third-world leaders, those men and women working everyday for regional peace or equitable local economics or the preservation of wildlife in their own backyards – then come back to this year’s Nobel and see how petty it sounds to claim that the richest country in the world is being discriminated against by the committee.

    I agree, Gallo should have been recognized – but let’s keep his nationality out of the debate.

  5. Dear Rudy,
    I, too, was involved with HIV from the early days in 1980s. My company Anatek-EP, a contract lab doing electrophoresis made (tried to make) the Western Blot for HIV confirmation. We were part of a study done by CDC from 1989 to 1999, Model Performance Evaluation Program Human Immunodeficiency Virus Type 1 (HIV-1) Testing. We were given names of techs in Robert Gallo’s lab to contact for information and help. I did not know then and certainly don’t know now if these people were simply ignorant or deliberately wanted to prevent us from being successful. We could not use their information. The lead researcher in Gallo’s lab was Mika Popovic. He did not believe in keeping lab notebooks . Can you imagine giving the Nobel Prize to someone who does not have a written record of the work that was done!!! The Nobel committe is indeed thorough and wise.

  6. Perhaps the Swedish academies should research a bit more about who they should give the prize to. Who knows? Maybe (or not) they have given a lot of consideration before making the final decision. The whole selection process is almost a secret to the whole world. Maybe they want someone with a perfect track record, but I’m sure that there are some politics behind it.

    As for the ‘brash and self-confident Americans’ comment, I feel also that it is a perception of non-Americans see the American public in general, so no surprise for me there. To me this is unfortunate and disappointing.

    The bottom line is… it’s a prestigious prize (or name), if you don’t get it, don’t get hung over by it.


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