Posted on October 10, 2018

No Black Scientist Has Ever Won a Nobel – That’s Bad for Science, and Bad For Society

Winston Morgan, The Conversation, October 8, 2018

{snip} Yet in over 100 years, we have never seen a black scientist become a Nobel laureate.

Every year, the annual October Nobel Prize announcements coincide with Black History Month, which is a painful reminder that of the more than 900 Nobel laureates, only 14 (1.5%) have been black and none in science. Almost all black laureates have been awarded for work in the fields of peace (ten) and literature (three). During that time the closest a black scientist has come to winning has been social scientist Arthur Lewis for his work economics in 1973.

By contrast there have been over 70 Asian laureates, the majority in the sciences, and since 2000 that number has significantly increased. This is partly due to the increasing influence and power of Japanese, Chinese, Korean universities and the success of the Asian American academy. {snip}

The main reason why no black scientist has won a Nobel prize is simply a matter of numbers. Not enough bright young black people are choosing science. Alongside the more limited opportunities for black Africans, black people in Western countries are less likely to study science, less likely to achieve a top degree and less likely to progress to scientific careers.

To even be considered as a possible Nobel laureate you must become a principal investigator or a professor in a leading institution. Yet, once a black science graduate makes it to the first rung on the academic ladder they face the same challenges as any other black academic around access to promotion and access to resources. {snip}

To become a professor you need support from your institution and to find at least four existing professors at other institutions who will support your application and certify that you are a leader in your field with an international reputation. This requires building large internal and external networks. For many reasons, not enough black academics work in institutions where such reputations and networks are made, significantly reducing the possibility of being promoted to professors.

Winston Morgan

This is also something of a circular problem. It seems highly likely the perception that black people don’t reach the highest level in science has in some ways affected the success of black people in science. {snip} Having a black Nobel laureate would inspire more black students to become black professors, which in turn would inspire more young black people to study science.


Why we need action

More black scientists wouldn’t just be a victory for equality but would benefit wider society. For example, conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and many others have a higher incidence in people of black or African heritage. Yet research is often biased towards studying white people. More black scientists, especially in leading positions, could bring greater focus, understanding and different insights to investigating these conditions. They could also help lead the decolonising of science, again with wider advantages to society.

{snip} If we want more black scientists and eventually Nobel laureates, then similar direct strategic action is urgently needed.