No black scientist has ever won a Nobel Prize — that’s bad for science and society

No black scientist has ever won a Nobel Prize — that’s bad for science and society

Many in the scientific world are celebrating the fact that two women received this year’s Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry. Donna Strickland and Frances Arnold are only the 20th and 21st female scientists to be recognized by the Nobel Committee.

Yet in over 100 years, we have never seen a black scientist become a Nobel laureate.

Every year, the annual October Nobel Prize announcements coincide with Black History Month, which is a painful reminder that of the more than 900 Nobel laureates, only 14 (1.5%) have been black and none in science.

Almost all black laureates have been awarded for work in the fields of peace (ten) and literature (three). During that time the closest a black scientist has come to winning has been social scientist Arthur Lewis for his work economics in 1973.

By contrast there have been over 70 Asian laureates, the majority in the sciences, and since 2000 that number has significantly increased.

This is partly due to the increasing influence and power of Japanese, Chinese, Korean universities and the success of the Asian American academy. To win a Nobel Prize for science, it helps if you are in a prestigious institution and in a position to lead big expensive science.

The main reason why no black scientist has won a Nobel prize is simply a matter of numbers. Not enough bright young black people are choosing science.

Alongside the more limited opportunities for black Africans, black people in Western countries are less likely to study science, less likely to achieve a top degree and less likely to progress to scientific careers.

To even be considered as a possible Nobel laureate you must become a principal investigator or a professor in a leading institution. Yet, once a black science graduate makes it to the first rung on the academic ladder they face the same challenges as any other black academic around access to promotion and access to resources. For example, we know black scientists in the US are less likely to receive funding for health research.