Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Nontroversy over Steinman's Nobel prize

On Monday, the Nobel foundation announced that this year's laureates for physiology and medicine includes Ralph Steinman for his work on the immune system. Only, it turns out, Ralph Steinman died Friday, three days before the announcement. This has caused a small media storm in Sweden for reasons I fail to discern.

Yes, the bylaws of the foundation state that the Nobel prize cannot be awarded posthumously. Yes, Ralph Steinman was in fact dead when he was announced as a laureate. No, the board who made the decision was not aware that he had just passed away - and as far as I can tell, the decision was made before he was dead (he just happened to pass away between the decision and the announcement).

This stumped the Nobel committee who now have to decide what to do with it. Recind the Nobel prize from a recently deceased person? Break the bylaws? After a couple of hours of deliberation they decided to keep Steinman on the list. So this "controversy" lasted all of a few hours of meetings.

And this is labelled - in Swedish newspapers anyway - a "controversy." Why? I'm not even sure it could be considered a "mistake," and even less so a "controversy." Should they have checked whether he was alive? When? A final phonecall a minute before entering the stage to make the announcement? Have a doctor in the room with all prospecive laureates who can press a big red button in case one of them happen to die just before their names are called out?

I honestly don't see what the big deal is. Yes, the prize is supposed to go to living scientists but it was no-one's intent to give it posthumously and I feel that they handled everything the way one can reasonably expect them to. The only feeling I come away with from this is sympathy with Steinman; I wish he could have learned about it before he died.

No comments: