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By Uchechi Moses
Three years ago, when I desired playing the TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, I researched about current affairs and came to follow up with the Nobel Prize and her winners. As someone with a background in life sciences, I was interested in winners of the medicine and physiology prize, other “hard core” sciences and to an extent economics’ category. Which is why if anyone tells me about a Nobel laureate, I ask which of the categories. I’m not overly interested in the literature nor peace winners (no offence intended).
Throughout my research, I discovered an intriguing stuff. No black person has won the Nobel Prize in any of the sciences. There has been only one winner in Economics (Sir William Arthur Lewis – 1979) and 11 winners in the Peace category (even though the continent is not really peaceful). Three in the Literature category with Toni Morrison being the first black woman to win a Nobel prize (Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore criticised Africans studying literature as it would not benefit them; which was and is correct). This denotes that there has been no black winner in Physics or Chemistry and Medicine/Physiology. This is because compared to Asians whether Mongoloid/Asian/Australoid, there are numerous winners. As this article is focused on the sciences, I will list few winners with some historic attachment who are Asians:
- Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman – First Asian (Indian) winner in sciences (Physics) 1930
- Hideki Yukawa – First Japanese (Physics) 1949
- Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee – First Chinese (Physics) 1957
- Har Gobind Khorana – First Asian (Indian) in Medicine/Physiology 1968
- Abdus Salam – First Pakistani and Moslem (Physics) (1979)
- Kenichi Fukui – First Asian in Chemistry (1981)
- Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar – Nephew of the first Asian (Physics) (1983)
- Tu Youyou – First Chinese woman (Medicine) (2015)
Although, an Indian first won it. The Japanese have the highest in sciences at 23 with most recent being the immunology expert Tasuku Honjo (2018, Medicine or physiology). However, that is not the crux for this article, so with the somewhat high proportion of blacks globally (circa 20%), why has there not been a winner in the science category?
From further research, the consensus was on the low percentage of blacks in academia or conducting research. The long period of time it takes for a typical laureate to be announced irrespective of prize category (why most winners tend to be 60+ years old). Other reasons are the poor quality of research from African institutions (if so, why has there been none from those residing/working in developed nations?). This can be understood as most of the Asian winners bar the Japanese studied abroad especially in the UK and US, where some of the best educational institutions are located, funding and equipment are provided. I continued the search, Herman Branson was mentioned for his work on the Alpha Helix structure. Louis Pauling (who issued the tasks Branson did) and Robert Corey (Pauling’s assistant) took much of the credits due to certain records not kept properly. Guess what? Pauling together with Corey later won the prize in chemistry (1954). However, one cannot overlook Pauling’s (with others) explanation of Sickle-Cell anemia. It opened new frontiers in protein abnormality. Another that was mentioned was Percy Julian, this I believe should have gotten the Chemistry Prize. Yet another was David Blackwell, who won the John von Neumann Theory Prize in 1979, but that is not a Nobel Prize even though it is seen as one. Albeit, the Fields’ Medal and the Abel’s Prize are seen as better representatives, even though the former has age limits (below 40) and timeline gap (every four years).
Additionally, there has been a surge in Nigerians nay black Africans studying for their post-graduate degrees outside the continent especially in the US and Europe. Folks acing the GRE and other standardised examinations, travelling abroad for further studies and some attaining permanent residency. So we have had these individuals in the US for further studies and research, I had a thought, how come none has won a Nobel Prize in the science category compared to say the Indian (Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Chemistry, 2009) and even the Japanese (Ei-ichi Negishi, Chemistry, 2010) who have done same. I thought, could it be because they came from relatively low income backgrounds compared to where they are (so the money is needed)? Or could it be because they head to private companies and not research institutes (albeit there have been winners who had their research in private companies, but a researcher is likely to research in line with the company’s objectives)? Or could it be because research takes time to fruition and brings forth less monetary benefits in the short term as opposed to say working with Pfizer? Imagine someone who left Nigeria after the stress; no electricity, research system to a place where everything is efficiently done and available. Question is: Why stress yourself in research when Pfizer can pay huge salaries and get rewarded financially quickly especially considering your background? Still on this hypothesis of mine, I recall a conversation I had with a lecturer (Nigerian descent) from the University of East London at a conference in Calabar two years ago. He told me about a friend who finished from Covenant University and went to Cambridge University for his MSc (Bioinformatics) and eventual PhD and is based there (this should be his tenth year). Now, that is someone one can prognosticate winning a Nobel Prize. Question are: Is he into research? Or just relocated to avoid the inefficient environment and works with a top private firm (say AstraZeneca not Cancer Research UK)?
In conclusion, it would be wonderful and inspiring to witness a black winner(s) in the science category; and for the records, I’m not advocating political correctness or racial quotas for blacks. I am all for merit irrespective of gender, creed, race, or sexual orientation. So why has there not been a black winner of a Nobel Prize in the science category?
Uchechi Moses writes from Ota, Ogun State.