The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Sweden is an annual occasion to celebrate the achievements of dedicated scientists and researchers whose work has left an indelible mark on humanity. While the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the 2020 Nobel Laureates from receiving their awards in person, the crisis has also put a renewed focus on fundamental research and the value of the global research ecosystem. This year, The Science Coalition (TSC) honors the six laureates with ties to TSC member institutions and celebrates the momentous wins for women in STEM.
Physiology or Medicine: Fighting Viral Disease
UC Davis alumnus Dr. Charles Rice and University of Rochester alumnus Dr. Harvey J. Alter, along with Dr. Michael Houghton, shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus. After Dr. Alter discovered a distinct new form of chronic hepatitis, Dr. Rice – backed by funding from the National Institutes of Health – was the first scientist to successfully culture the hepatitis C virus in a lab. With this new opportunity to closely study the virus, researchers were able to reveal the cause of chronic hepatitis and develop medicines to cure the disease, saving millions of lives.
Physics: Black Holes and the Center of the Milky Way
UCLA professor Andrea Ghez, an alumna of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and UC Berkeley professor emeritus Reinhard Genzel are two winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics. Thanks to their research, a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy has gone from a mere possibility to a certainty. Albert Einstein proposed his general theory of relativity more than 100 years ago. Dr. Ghez published the most comprehensive test of general relativity near the black hole at the center of our galaxy in 2019. Dr. Genzel published similar research, which found that Einstein’s iconic theory is right, at least for now.
With funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), this decades-long culmination of astrophysics research is only the tip of the iceberg – dozens of questions about gravity, black holes, and the origins of our universe are still outstanding. And in a significant moment for women in STEM, Dr. Ghez is only the fourth woman ever to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Chemistry: Genetic Scissors
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to UC Berkeley’s Dr. Jennifer Doudna for her work on CRISPR-Cas9, a tool that allows researchers to cut and edit DNA. With its ease of use and versatility of applications, CRISPR has allowed scientists around the world to extend and fortify the lifespan of crops, develop new cancer therapies, and advance cures for genetic diseases.
Dr. Doudna, who has received more than $1.5 million in NSF funding over the course of her career, also won the agency’s Alan T. Waterman Award in 2000, which recognizes an outstanding young researcher in any field of science or engineering supported by NSF. She shares the prize with Emmanuelle Charpentier – marking another historic milestone: they are the first women to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences together.
Economics: Auction Design
Stanford University professors Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson were honored with the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences for their fundamental research on auction theory, which has opened new possibilities for transactions and shaped the modern economy. Their work has been supported by NSF for decades.
Going forward, Dr. Milgrom says he and Dr. Wilson have a particular interest in exploring notions that others might dismiss: “I think that one of the effects of a prize like this is that people will pause before rejecting. They’ll take things more seriously, and that will help me make novel things happen.”
In a full circle moment befitting 2020, Dr. Milgrom and Dr. Wilson are using their research to inform new strategies to address challenges stemming from COVID-19.
These groundbreaking discoveries, which have saved lives, opened new pathways for treatment, expanded our understanding of the universe, and increased the capacity of the global economy, are each rooted in fundamental research supported by our federal research agencies. Amid the public health crisis that has delayed or disrupted the work of thousands of researchers, the Nobel Prizes should serve as a call to action for Congress. Emergency research relief and sustained, robust, predictable federal investment in America’s scientific enterprise creates an environment where future Nobel Prize winners thrive.