There is no doubt that the Nobel Prize has helped decisively to shape the public image of science over the past hundred years. For a large part of the general public, the award of a Nobel Prize – especially to a fellow-countryman – is a significant occasion for contact with science and the scientific enterprise. The prize-winners become public celebrities widely consulted by the media, and key sources of information for the public.
On the occasion of the 2005 Nobel prize-giving ceremony, we decided to investigate certain aspects of the public role performed by the Nobel Prize and by its Italian winners.
The first finding was that the Nobel Prize was much more prestigious in the eyes of the general public than any other award or honour. Two-thirds of Italians regard it as by far the most prestigious of all awards; considerably more so that the Oscar, appointment as ‘senator for life’ in the Italian parliament, or European Footballer of the Year – which honour excellence in other areas of social life, like entertainment, politics and sport. Although straightforward, this finding adds to the results of other research to confirm that science still enjoys prestige and visibility. Moreover, in this case, and despite widespread opinion to the contrary, the public regard scientific research as superior to other social practices, and its prestige and visibility increase with the educational qualifications of the interviewee: some 83% of graduates regarded the Nobel as the most prestigious of all awards.
Also significant was the ability of the interviewees to identify who had actually won a Nobel Prize from a list of Italian scientists: for example, 51% of them were able to recognize Renato Dulbecco as a Nobel prize-winner, although less than one-third of these knew that he had been awarded the prize for work in medical research: almost 40% thought he was a physicist. Only a slightly lower percentage (38%) recognized the name of Carlo Rubbia as a Nobel prize-winner. In this case, though, they were more knowledgeable about Rubbia’s subject area: 57.2% correctly said that that he was a physicist. Likewise, five out of ten interviewees were correct to say that Umberto Veronesi, his high public profile as a scientist notwithstanding, has never been awarded a Nobel Prize. As regards the ability of interviewees to identify Italian prize-winners, the most significant exceptions were Antonino Zichichi (a prize-winner for almost one-third of interviewees), and especially Giulio Natta, who is largely a ‘forgotten’ Nobel laureate: only one in every ten subjects identified Natta as a Nobel prize-winner, and among these, only one-third knew that he was a chemist. To be noted is that Rubbia, Zichichi and Veronesi are the scientists whose disciplinary areas are the best known to the Italian public, especially so compared to Dulbecco and Natta.
In this respect the interviewee’s level of education seemed to play a significant role. For example, more than 55% of low-educated interviewees thought that Zichichi had won a Nobel Prize, but the percentage was less than half among university graduates. Similarly, the ability to recognize Carlo Rubbia as a Nobel laureate increased with educational qualification, and so did the ability to identify him as a physicist. The significant fact remains, however, four graduates in every ten thought that Dulbecco is a physicist, and less than one in three knew that Natta had won the Nobel Prize. It is certainly likely that, because Natta won the prize considerably earlier than the other scientists on the list, he has attracted less attention from the media. Natta, in fact, is largely ignored by the press and television – despite the recent centenary of his birth – compared with the other scientists. And in a certain respect, this neglect can be considered indicative of the state of chemistry in Italy – and not just in terms of visibility.
The Nobel Prize can also be used as an indicator of the Italian public’s broader perceptions of, and attitudes towards, scientific activity. In this regard, the prestige and visibility surrounding the Nobel Prize is matched by a view that has largely replaced the image of the solitary genius with a broader conception of scientific progress as resulting from collaboration and teamwork. For Italians, therefore, a Nobel prize-winner is not so much an example of extraordinary individual brilliance, or of the ability to be ‘in the right place at the right time’, as ‘the leader of an excellent research group’, because ‘research work is increasingly teamwork’. The latter view is more widespread among better-educated Italians, while the image of the solitary genius is more common among the less-educated.
This combination of the indisputable prestige of the Nobel prize, the visibility and recognizability of (some) of its winners, and a pragmatic rather than awestruck view of scientific research, has a number of policy implications. The Nobel Prize and its winners can foster not only a generic interest in the individual qualities of scientists, but also a more composite perception of the importance of investments and the efficient organization of research, with a view to achieving advances of indubitable benefit to both the individual and society as a whole.
This article was published by La Stampa’s TuttoScienzeTecnologia on the 12th of october, 2005.
The survey was conducted by means of CATI-method telephone interviews with a sample of 1029 subjects, stratified by gender, age, and geographical area of residence, and representing the Italian population aged 15 and over.