We Need to Talk About the Nobel Prize Bias Why Are Black People Still Not Winning Nobel Prizes in the Sciences?

Winning the Literature and Peace Nobel Prizes has been crucial to Black literature and resistance. But what does a history of omission in the other elusive categories mean?

Twenty-eight Nobel Prizes have been awarded to Africans, of the 621 prizes that have been awarded since 1901. This number begins to thin out without the necessary consideration of birthplace. Seven prizes have been awarded for literature including the 1958 win by the French Algerian-born and educated fabulist, Albert Camus. There have been thirteen peace prizes if you include the prize awarded in 1994 to the Egyptian-born Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. Last year, Africa got its most recent Nobel Prize when the Tanzanian-born author of Paradise, Abdulrazak Gurnah, was announced winner of the prize in literature. 

Of the prizes awarded in the hard sciences so far: Physiology or Medicine, Chemistry, and Physics, one has gone to an Egyptian and the others have been shared by people born in French Algeria and White South Africans. No scientific event by a Black person, globally and/or of African heritage, has inspired unanimity among members of the Nobel committees, enough to push a nominee past the selection process into the limelight. This is in the hopes that they have been nominated consistently by affiliated institutions, nations, colleagues, members of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences or past winners. To watch the yearly roll call of Nobel prizewinners in Physiology or Medicine, Chemistry and Physics is to be confronted by this gap, and its relative global insignificance. 


The committees have through the decades maintained their rarefied selection process, part of which lends the prize its air of mystery and generates relative excitement for a few weeks each year. But concerns have long plagued the prizes and decisions to give them to, or withhold them from, certain people. After Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, some critics worried about the state of the Western canon and insisted that two of her works highlighted by the prize, Beloved and Jazz, were not in fact aesthetic accomplishments, but a win for the literary trends of the day: multiculturalism, feminism and Marxism. The naming of the American singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan, as the winner of the Literature Prize in 2016 was divisive for a different set of reasons. The win, presented as a progressive blurring of the genre boundaries, either elicited further concern about the overreach of the committee or praise for its forward-thinking. So far, it would seem that Dylan’s win has turned out to be one of those isolated Nobel events that reveal nothing about the direction the prize is headed. 

Beyond the literature controversies, there is the Peace Prize with its contested origin. At least, two origin stories exist. In one story, the prize exists as a possible gesture Alfred Nobel made toward his own absolution, having benefited from the military-industrial complex with the invention of the dynamite. The other story credits the inclusion of an odd Peace Prize, alongside awards for Physiology or Medicine, Physics, Chemistry and Literature—a memorial prize in Economics came later—to Nobel’s friendship with the Austrian pacifist, Bertha Von Suttner, who led the International Peace Movement, and would go on to win the Peace Prize in 1905. The prize which came with special considerations—notably that it would be awarded not in Stockholm but in Oslo—would reward efforts made towards disarmament, peace congresses and brotherhood between nations, updated to include peace-promoting mechanisms like human rights and negotiation efforts. 

Within the context of post-colonial paradoxes that play out across former colonies, however, the Peace Prize is complicated. From time to time, a peace Nobel is given to deserving members of the ‘developing’ world. This prize, one hopes, is not in lieu of a Nobel that suggests years of academic rigour. And, one hopes, the prize does not function on some level as a machine for turning transgressive voices into members of a tribute band. To think of the Peace Prize as a consolation prize that does not foreground academic rigour would be wrongheaded. It suggests that Mandela, Wangari, Tutu, Sirleaf, Nthuli, Anwar el-Sadat, Gbowee, Annan, Mukwege and Ali’s works at varying levels did not require the daily intellectual rigour of interfacing with insidious power. This year’s Peace Prize awarded to the jailed Iranian activist, Narges Mohammadi, cannot in good faith be considered an act of coddling. And the Peace Prize awarded to Maria Ressa in 2021 was anything but a clearheaded show of merit.  

Still, it’s hard to read the Nobel enterprise in 2023 as anything but quaint and overreaching. A sort of reverse Hunger Games. Videos of Nobel Laureates being filmed receiving or recounting news of their win can be in themselves curious objects. They provide offbeat internet humour, as in the case of the British author, Doris Lessing, filmed outside her apartment looking busy and unimpressed when she is told that she has won. Through the conversation, she carries on with the routines of her day. Abdulrazak Gurnah was making himself a cup of tea when his phone rang. He picked it ready to fend off a random cold caller. A youngish Wole Soyinka, 52 at the time, was the first Black person to be named a Literature Laureate. In retrospect, he has said he savoured the prize money and would not decline a second win but hated sorely the near-total loss of anonymity it brought. My favourite spin-off event from this year’s Nobel Prize season has been the attention received by the small California-based publishing house, Transit Books, which publishes Jon Fosse’s works and Kintu, the first novel of Ugandan-British novelist, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. It is run out of the Richmond home of publishers, Ashley Nelson Levy and Adam Levy. 


Nobel winners, especially the Literature Laureates, have come to exist as distinct figures in pop culture. And beyond the general fanfare, the Black and/or African Literature Laureate remains crucial. A work of fiction is a good time and writing one can be an act of individuation or a bad wealth generation scheme, but the novel is also a gridwork on which historical erasures and inconsistencies might be reimagined or righted. A Nobel win gestures toward high craft and a lifetime of excellence, but also towards a world where all stories and histories can matter equally. It’s not always certain what the Peace Prizes confirm. But African and post-colonial winners of the prize have in the past done the important work of untangling a colonial legacy of conflicts, and the myriad problems of environmental degradation caused by extraction. It’s anyone’s guess why an African is yet to win a Nobel Prize in economics or why only one Black economist has been given the prize so far.  

The Saint Lucian, W. Arthur Lewis, won the prize in 1979 for his work on, among other things, an industrialization push focused on domestic markets in Africa and the Caribbean. In 2019, Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer became Economics Laureates for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty. In the same vein, the near-impossible work that African feminists do in data gathering and identifying innovations that sustain micro economies, alone warrants recognition. Particularly because the committee has been willing to stretch the criteria for the Economics Prize to include non-economists in the past. Each year’s omission dates the academy. 

When I taught a ‘Writing in the Sciences’ class to college freshmen in 2022, I turned to Frances H. Arnold who won the Chemistry Prize in 2018. Her breakthrough paper on the making of high-performing proteins through directed evolution (a super-efficient gene sequencing and selection procedure) led to the creation of synthetic proteins, good for making cheaper biofuels, and innovations that could aid the treatment of degenerative diseases. I came out of teaching that class in awe of science again having abandoned a life as an engineer to become a writer, but also aware of how money, power and Western interests undergird scientific research: what research work sees the light of day and what gets stalled indefinitely. A Nobel Prize in the natural sciences remains elusive for specific subsets of people, yet the committees have shown consistent interest in innovations that solve issues that may disproportionately affect these subsets of people and the quality of their lives. 


It is possible to treat this exclusion as an unfortunate outcome of the post-colonial paradox. Within this paradox, the average science student on the continent has to commute too many imaginative distances, and the route from self-generated interest to actual scientific research can be too long, hard and obstacle-filled. It makes sense then that the outlet is routinely a creative one. The urge to break a God is clear in new Nigerian aspirations that have emerged sometime in the last two decades. Among them, the dream of becoming a pop star has acquired definite form, because more and more Nigerian pop stars live like monarchs with their diehard fans and fiefdoms. Within the new social order, the literary stars hold significant sway. The movie industry has long held as a crucible for what exists of the Nigerian dream. We have also found new space for reality TV stars and people who break insane global records designed to break the human spirit. But in this game of ascension, apart from the tech wunderkinds, aspiring to be a scientist can prove even more a fool’s errand than the dream of becoming a pop star. 

One clear argument made for why the Nobel prizes in the hard sciences have not been as inclusive has to do with the low probability of Black students ending up in research-focused programmes and institutions. The point is often made that it is really just a numbers game. But, for people who get into these programs at all, many struggle or work way harder than their colleagues to prove their mettle. In Real Life, a novel by the American author, Brandon Taylor, a biochemistry student whose experiences intersect with the author’s own in parts, deals with this very frustration in a PhD program that is overwhelmingly White. There’s a clip of Susan Sontag looking so thoroughly pleased and vindicated on a panel she shares with the evolutionary biologist, E.O. Wilson, and the mathematical physicist, Roger Penrose, at an Images and Meaning panel in 2001. In this clip where Sontag and her co-panellists have been invited to offer insights and first-impression responses to six iconic scientific images, a woman in the audience points out an often left-out detail on the famous Watson and Crick’s image of the DNA structure. This image, part of a paper which won James D. Watson and Francis Crick a Nobel Prize in 1962, she notes, was based on work done by Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins. Watson, Crick and Wilkins went on to win a joint Nobel with very little mention of the late Franklin’s (she died in 1958) contribution. There’s no mention in Wilkins’ Nobel Lecture where he thanks and acknowledges all the men. And certainly not in Watson or Crick’s Banquet Speeches. Now, the prize has evolved past this weird history of sexist exclusion. But if Black people are still not showing up among the hard science Laureates, one must wonder because what it implies is serious.  


What the prize has meant for more than a century is what it will likely continue to mean thanks in part to its generous endowment. It pays nearly a million dollars depending on how flush the Royal Swedish Academy is with cash, and how well the Swedish Krona performs. It dwarfs prizes of equal or greater stature or rigour, yet it retains its glorious regional air, with about the same or a little less global appeal than a Miss Universe pageant. The committees function as good deed Santas, taking stock of career advancements and assigning prizes that have come to function as the final statement of one’s genius. It is self-perpetuating as all prizes are. Yet, we need them, even want them to be good and transcendent, to point us toward some higher ideal. 

As with literary work, or perhaps more than what a writer’s work entails, scientific research happens in isolation. And maybe we need a final authority prize that points us towards significant work in science. There are no doubt lists that compare the odds of some scientist winning the prize over another. But they are niche or hard to track. Possibly known only to the people who actually go to Stockholm to sit in that well-lit room as the awardees give their speeches, and later sit in the room where Zeinab Badawi speaks to a round table of each year’s winners, teasing answers about their complex lifelong pursuits out of them. 

There have been years when certain prizes have suffered an identity crisis, courted controversy almost going out of the way to seek it, and years when choices have confounded the public. Years when winners have turned down the prize for good reason. And some years when a prize has been awarded to a person who in 2023 still says things like, ‘as a male scientist. I have a feeling of discrimination when I am here,’ as in the case of Kurt Wüthrich who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He said these magical words at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in June, referring to a gender quota in STEM that he claimed was specifically excluding men.  

But the academy and the prizes continue to remain necessary for the advancement of humanity. Even if the procedures for nominations, unmysterious as they are, still include the mystification of nominators who remain secret for fifty years, while we wait for Black heroes of science to be made apparent to the world

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].