Two Norwegian politicians recently made news by issuing a press release announcing that they have nominated National Security Administration leaker Edward Snowden for a Nobel Peace Prize. Even though it violates the prize committee’s request to keep nominations private, similar press announcements are common each Nobel Peace Prize awards cycle (Literature nominations have also been disclosed over the years, though less frequently). The public announcement of Snowden’s nomination pleased some people and infuriated others. My main reaction was to feel increased respect for my professorial colleagues at Stanford and other schools of medicine.
Most people are unaware that many people are allowed to submit Nobel Prize nominations. For the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, full professors of medicine all over Scandanavia are always allowed to nominate, and this group is supplemented by academics of similar rank at a rotating list of other medical schools around the world. Many full professors at Stanford Medical School and some other leading schools will therefore been asked at some point to serve as nominators.
To the press and the average person, being a “Nobel Prize nominee” is a magnificent, rare honor conveying credibility forever after. Any nominator who wants to boost someone’s profile can therefore do so by nominating them and then telling the press. As a result, the Nobel Prize nomination process is an opportunity both to celebrate achievement and to create mischief.
A nominator could nominate a completely deserving colleague at his/her medical school (which is ethical) and then inform their press office (which is not), thereby bringing some easy positive publicity to their university. A professor could also reveal to the press that s/he has nominated a powerful person in the hopes of currying favor (“I forgot that Francis Collins was the head of NIH when I nominated him for his extraordinary achievements, but yes, now that you mention it, I do have some grant proposals under review there”).
More darkly, any professor of medicine who is a nominator could announce to the press that s/he has nominated Andrew Wakefield for a Nobel Prize in Medicine, thereby helping him to persuade more people to forgo vaccinating their children for mumps, measles and rubella. Likewise, a venal medical school professor could accept a financial inducement to announce the Nobel Prize nomination of someone hawking some ineffective food supplement or quack medical procedure.
Yet to my knowledge, no professor of medicine has ever done anything like this. Each year hundreds of them around the world submit their nominations and stay closemouthed about them. In an age of so much disclosure of virtually everything in the media and online, that speaks well of the standards of academic medicine and the character of the people in it.