The 2011 Nobel Prize in Medicine

To rehabilitate his reputation, Alfred Nobel, in his will, established the Nobel Prizes, the crucial element of which was that they honor the most useful research. Nobel wanted to be associated with good works. This has become a considerable problem for the committee that awards the Physiology and Medicine prize because, if you haven’t noticed, the most prestigious research — the stuff done at great expense in gleaming new laboratories — isn’t useful. The uselessness of high-prestige academic research was emphasized  by Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class. Unfortunately Nobel died shortly before it was published.

For a long time, the Nobel prize-winning research in Medicine hasn’t provided significant help with major health problems (depression, obesity, diabetes, cancer, stroke, heart disease, etc.). Sometimes it has been a tiny bit helpful. Most often the prize-winning research has been, at the time of the award, no clear help at all. This is one of those years. The press release announcing the 2011 prize tries to hide this important truth. Here is the “what use is it?” section of this year’s press release:

From fundamental research to medical use

The discoveries that are awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize have provided novel insights into the activation and regulation of our immune system. They have made possible the development of new methods for preventing and treating disease, for instance with improved vaccines against infections and in attempts to stimulate the immune system to attack tumors. These discoveries also help us understand why the immune system can attack our own tissues, thus providing clues for novel treatment of inflammatory diseases.

“They have made possible the development of new methods for preventing and treating disease.” False (and, uh, just a wee bit grandiose). Such development was already possible. Note what isn’t said: “They led to new methods for preventing and treating disease.”

“Improved vaccines against infections.” I have heard nothing about this, in spite of the plural (vaccines rather than vaccine). In any case, this is faint praise because the improvement might be a small percentage. If you know whether this claim is true, please leave a comment. Again note what isn’t said: “New vaccines”. According to this article, the work led to a vaccine against prostate cancer. (With no noticeable benefit so far.) Does the press release writer think  prostate cancer is infectious?

“Attempts to stimulate the immune system to attack tumors.” Attempts? As in failed attempts? Apparently.

The final sentence (“These discoveries also help us understand . . . “) is out of place. The section is about actually helping people (“medical use”) not ivory-tower stuff like “providing clues”. Whoever wrote this is like a student with not enough to say trying to meet a teacher’s minimum word count.

There you have it. The practical value of the research awarded the most prestigious prize in the world — a prize that Alfred Nobel’s will said should be given to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”

To make your immune system work better, I am sure there are two simple, practical and powerful ways of doing so: deepen your sleep and eat fermented foods.

3 Responses to “The 2011 Nobel Prize in Medicine”

  1. wcb Says:

    Seth, thanks for these observations which, unfortunately, appear to be quite accurate.

    Sad to say that, based on all I have learned and personally experienced in the last decade or so, I have to suspect that most of what passes for “high-prestige academic research” in the medical / health arena is sponsored (i.e. largely paid for) by pharmaceutical companies and other commercial interests.

    So I suppose no one should be surprised that, unless and until the research is being done by individuals whose independence has not been compromised, a true benefit to mankind is much less likely. Whatever happened to integrity in academia and government?

  2. dearieme Says:

    The difference between Applied Science and Pure Science lies in the motives of those pursuing them. The motives in Pure Science are pure; they are the purely selfish attempt to advance the interests of the researchers. Those interests vary: sometimes they may be dominated by the desire to satisfy intellectual curiosity; more often, I suspect, they are dominated by the desire for career advancement. Given this structure of motivations, it follows that all Applied Science research institutions are at permanent risk of being taken over by Pure Science. Put simply, someone whose motives are mixed, including the desire to do some good for society, must expect to lose in competition against someone whose motives are entirely selfish.

  3. Seth Roberts Says:

    dearime, yes, I think that is what is happening. If you want to do research that helps people, you must pay a considerable price, especially in prestige. Outsiders fail to understand this, so there is no pressure to change.