Nobel Prizes and the Scientific Elite

The scientific elite and the elite basis of scientific knowledge is trace able to the Greeks. Plato treated knowledge as a principle of social stratification that is distributed as talents across the population. Accordingly, education is about discovering the social role or function for which one has been biologically endowed. In a highly differentiated society, all such roles are “elite” in that a select few can play them well. The distinctiveness of science for Plato is that its form of knowledge makes one, at least in principle, fit to rule society as a whole. It is worth contrasting Aristotle’s somewhat different view of the situation. He shared Plato’s views about genetically based individual differences but treated the capacity to rule as a general talent common to those whose families have a proven track record of estate management. For Aristotle, science was “elite” in the sense of a leisure activity that such people should undertake, much like sports, once they have attended to matters of the estate.

Both Plato’s and Aristotle’s perspectives on the elite nature of science underwent significant change in the modern period, especially as science metamorphosed from a specialized mental discipline to the basis of technological innovation and society’s infrastructure. Yet, relatively pure versions of these classical views have persisted. On the one hand, Platonism survives in the idea of an ”internal history of science,” whereby science proceeds according to a trajectory defined by a self selecting class of scientists. Once sufficiently matured, the knowledge of this class is then applicable to society at large, with varying degrees of consent from those to whom it is applied. This idea was enshrined by Cold War theorists of science like James Bryant Conant and Thomas Kuhn. On the other hand, Aristotelianism survives in the neoliberal political economist Charles Murray, who has questioned the increasing relevance of science, and academic knowledge more generally, to job training across all sectors of society. According to Murray, this only ends up dissipating and corrupting science, while providing a false sense of competence to the intellectually deficient.

The monotheistic idea that humans are created in the image and likeness of God reoriented the Greek elitist heritage by implying that science is not the knowledge of an elite but the elite part of universally available knowledge. As this idea was secularized, scientists justified their elite status as merely temporary, portraying themselves as the vanguard of overall social progress. The expectation, then, was that scientific knowledge would ultimately ”rationalize” all of society. Early scientific societies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries argued this way in return for political protection and legal autonomy. The image has remained persuasive as scientific societies and state power fed off each other: the intensification of scientific effort required more full time workers in the field. States realized that these scientific recruits could also function as civil servants. By the late nineteenth century, the image of scientists as salaried professionals requiring specialized, yet non esoteric, training began to receive wide spread acceptance. Indeed, as opposed to the class snobbery that persisted in the humanities, a career in science came to be seen as a means for upward social mobility.

However, this anti elitist tendency was undermined in the twentieth century from two directions, one subtle and infrastructural, the other more public and symbolic. The former involved the so called peer review process by which scientific research has been evaluated since the seventeenth century. Originally, peer review enabled science to function as an egalitarian community, in which any scientist (at least in a given specialty) was literally eligible to evaluate the work of any other scientist. But as the ranks of scientists swelled, and perceptions about their merit became more discriminating, peer review itself became elitist: relatively few pass judgment on the increasingly many.

This tendency has been exacerbated by the extension of peer review’s purview from publication to funding issues – not just whose research is meritorious, but who is fit to do research in the first place. Robert Merton has called this the principle of cumulative advantage, popularly known as the Matthew effect. Scientists whose work is cited more tend to publish more, which usually implies greater access to resources (including time), which in turn reflects the scientist’s institutional location, itself a product of job market considerations, which are themselves biased toward the scientist’s academic pedigree. While Merton hailed these nested constraints as evidence of science’s own version of the ”invisible hand,” it equally looks like a return to the hereditary transmission of status, albeit not along strictly biological lines.

The second elitist revival in twentieth century science has come from the institution of the Nobel Prizes, awarded annually since 1901, from an endowment provided in the will of the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel. Against the ongoing professionalization of science, the idea of prizes for scientific achievement recalled an older amateur ethic, whereby clever people from various walks of life competed to solve practically inspired problems by scientific means. In fact, the main difficulty in implementing Nobel’s wishes was his desire to reward the latest and most beneficial achievements, yet as defined in terms of scientific disciplines (physics, chemistry, physiology, and medicine) which are naturally organized along a longer temporal and deeper theoretical horizon. This tension has been historically resolved by a tendency to award Prizes for empirical, but rarely theoretical, work of clear academic significance. And given that the Nobel Prizes were conceived before biology became institutionalized as an academic discipline, no prize has ever been given for work specifically related to the neo Darwinian synthesis that theoretically unifies the field.

The sociological impact of the Nobel Prizes on scientific enterprise has been complex. The large purse associated with each prize (about $1.5 million) has made scientists more focused, competitive, and proprietary as they try to second guess the inclinations of the Sweden based award committees. However, since these committees operate by consensus, controversy arises more over who should be included in an award (up to three people allowed) than the achievement recognized in the award. At the same time as the prizes have lived up to Nobel’s desire for the internationalization of science, they have also enabled certain countries, notably the United States, to serve as magnets for researchers with Nobelist ambitions. Finally, the Nobel Prizes have inspired comparably funded prizes in other disciplines. Together they have provided significant public relations for science as a whole, while reinforcing the difference between its elite and rank and file practitioners.


  1. Crawford, E. (1992) Nationalism and Internationalism in Science. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  2. Feldman, B. (2000) The Nobel Prize. Arcade, New York.
  3. Fuller, S. (2002) Knowledge Management Foundations. Butterworth-Heinemann, Woburn.
  4. Harrgitai, I. (2002) The Road to Stockholm. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. Merton, R. K. (1973) The Sociology of Science. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  6. Zuckerman, H. (1977) Scientific Elite. Free Press, New York.

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