Science Nobel Prizes Could Be A Lot More Diverse and Inclusive

By Sheeva Azma

photo of man doing science in a laboratory
Science is for everyone. Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash

Alfred Nobel established the Nobel Prizes in his will in order to recognize the most phenomenal scientific achievements from anyone in the scientific world, regardless of their country of origin.  Yet, 100 years later, the Nobel Prizes do not seem to represent the landscape of scientific achievement. One problem is that very few women and/or minorities have been honored by the Nobel Prize.

Marie Curie was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in 1903 when she shared the Physics Nobel with her husband, Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel. Marie Curie won another Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911, making her the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different categories. Looking at the Nobel Prize winners from then until 2019, the Nobel Prize has been awarded to women 53 times (counting Marie Curie twice) in just over 115 years. We have already discussed the lack of female representation in the Nobel Prize and in science in this post, but another problem is a lack of representation of different races.  For example, no Black scientists have ever won the Nobel Prize in Physiology & Medicine, Physics, or Chemistry.  

That’s not to say that Black laureates of the Nobel Prize do not exist — 12 out of 16 of the Black Nobel Prize winners are recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Others, such as Wole Soyinka, won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  W. Arthur Lewis, to date the only Black laureate of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, won the prestigious award in 1979.  Ralphe Bunche won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for his work on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Bunche was the first African-American to win a Nobel.

Yet, when it comes to science, minorities are woefully underrepresented at this highest level of achievement.  No Black person has ever been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Physics, or Physiology or Medicine. It is clear that celebrating scientific achievement at such a high level has the same problems of inherent bias found elsewhere in society.

To be honest, when I embarked on the goal of writing about the Nobel Prizes for #FancyScienceShared, I did not know about the lack of diverse representation in these awards, the be-all-end-all of scientific achievement.  With issues of race on everyone’s minds following the recent protests related to police brutality across the United States, it’s way past time of discussing this problem in highlighting BIPOC (Black, Indigeous, and People of Color) achievements in the sciences.

What Do Black Scientists Have to Say about Diversity in the Nobel Prizes, and in Science in General?

It’s clear that bias in the training process likely precludes minority students from reaching the highest echelons of scientific achievement, but beyond that, I was flabbergasted by this fact.  So I reached out to a couple of Black scientists to ask their opinions on the topic to get a better understanding of where this problem really occurs in the scientific pipeline.

Jessica Ware is Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History.  Here are her thoughts on the topic of representation in the Nobel Prizes:

“There is a common misconception that there is a lack of Black scientists out there. But there are Black scientists! We exist as PIs, postdocs, grad students, and undergrads. In fact, all levels of academia have accomplished, Black researchers (albeit in lower numbers than would be expected given general population demographics due to historical and present systemic racism). To assume that those Black researchers—who are doing cutting-edge transformative science, who are funded heavily by national granting agencies, who have merit-based honors bestowed on them—are not also doing work worthy of recognition by the Nobel committee is problematic.”

Assuming that Black researchers — who are doing cutting-edge transformative science, are funded heavily by national granting agencies, and have won awards for their work — are not doing Nobel-worthy work is problematic. @JessicaLWareLab

Leyte Winfield has served on the faculty of Spelman College since 2003. Here’s what she had to say on the topic:

“I will say that on the surface, this [the fact that no Black person has been awarded a Nobel Laureate in Science] is an artifact of the systematic racism that has caused contributions from Blacks to go unrecognized or ignored. It’s hard to fathom why a George Washington Carver or Percy Julian would not be recognized for their contributions to chemistry or Katherine Johnson for her contributions to the NASA space program. Gladys West’s work laid the foundation for the establishment of the global positioning system. We track packages, map our runs, find our phone and our kids, and circumnavigate the globe with precision because of her contributions. Beyond misrecognition, science has not always been intentional about diversity, equity, inclusion, and respect in the research environment. Because of this, African Americans and individuals from groups underrepresented in STEM disciplines do not always have the same opportunity to participate in science as do their Caucasian counterparts. The literature is ripe with reasons for this reality.”

There is a need for practical strategies for improving inclusive teaching and tackling the challenges of diversity in our institutions and workplaces. @DRWinfield

Dr. Winfield recently published an article in the Journal of Chemistry Education outlining the systemic racism in the field of chemistry.  As she wrote in her article, which you can read here, “there is a need for practical strategies for improving inclusive teaching [and] tackling the challenges of diversity in our institutions and workplaces.”

Research Shows Female and Minority Scientists are Less Visible in Their Fields

Many argue that this dearth of diverse Nobel Prize recipients is due to the leaky science pipeline.  Yet, this phenomenon does not appear to be poorly understood systematically.  A few studies point to serious gaps between minority and female scientists and their white, male peers.  For example, research discussed by the website Inside Higher Ed shows that there’s a gender gap in citations — articles authored by men are more likely to be cited, and incorporated into future research, than articles authored by women.  Fewer citations in academic research can be thought of as lower visibility in the field.

Articles authored by men are more likely to be cited, and incorporated into future research, than articles authored by women. The gender gap in academic citations can make it difficult for women to gain visibility in science.

A similar trend towards low visibility among Black scientists exists which has resulted, in part, from a citation gap. This pattern can be seen in the A 2011 study in Science revealed that Black applicants to grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were 10 percentage points less likely to receive NIH grants to which they applied.  This is partially, but not completely, explained by the fact that (as another study showed in 2018) Black applicants are more likely to have fewer publications.

A 2011 study in the journal Science revealed that Black applicants to NIH grants were 10 percentage points less likely to receive the grants. This disparity was partially explained by a citation gap between Black researchers and others.

What can be done to improve diversity and inclusion in science?  It’s clear that the first step is recognizing the immensity of the equity problem in the sciences.  Only then can we move forward and work to make science a more level playing field for all.


Wilson-Kennedy, Z. S., et al. (2020). “Toward Intentional Diversity, Equity, and Respect in Chemistry Research and Practice.” Journal of Chemical Education 97(8): 2041-2044. 

Ginther, Donna, et al. “Publications as predictors of racial and ethnic differences in NIH research awards.” PLoS ONE. 14 Nov 2018: 13(11): e0205929.

Ginther, Donna, et al. “Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards.” Science. 19 Aug 2011: Vol. 333, Issue 6045, pp. 1015-1019.

Guterman, Lila.  “Statistically speaking, 2019 Nobel Prize lineup of 11 men and one woman was bound to happen.” Science.  Sat. 3 Oct 2020.

Migiro, Geoffrey. “Black Nobel Prize Winners.” WorldAtlas. 10 Dec 2019.

Pells, Rachael. “Understanding the Extent of the Gender Gap in Citations.” Inside Higher Ed. 16 Aug 2018.

“Racial disparities in science and publishing.” ASAPbio. Sat. 3 Oct 2020.

“Women who changed the world.” The Nobel Prize. Sat. 3 Oct 2020.

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