I do think many individuals like to be awarded prizes, to feel recognised, to be appreciated by their communities for their contributions.

But I don’t think that’s really why we have so many prizes.

I think we have prizes and awards because, if managed properly, significant benefits, accrue not just to the individual prize winner, but to society. The individual may benefit but in some cases prizes also impose an obligation, even a burden. Many recipients, deep down, feel unworthy and work hard to keep earning the prize.

On Twitter I’ve seen well-meaning people criticising the Nobel Prize. But when I think of the Australian Nobel Laureates I feel they work tirelessly in an attempt to serve society. In general, I think prize winners tend to feel humble and want to give back after receiving recognition.

Good systems for allocating prizes identify people capable of giving even more, and then subtly and relentlessly pressure them to do just that!

Prizes also cut through the ever increasing white noise of modern life and highlight things worth noticing.

I love the annual Archibald Prize for portraiture, because it reminds me to think about and enjoy art. I also get to think about many of the people depicted in the portraits.

Similarly, the Booker Prize, gets me thinking about books, the Palm D’Or at Cannes alerts me to world cinema, and even the Oscars, serve to annually summarise a selection of some of the world’s best films.

But are they really the best?

Is it more that prize committees tend to huddle around the status quo, with like selecting like, and perpetuating the existing power structures and conventions held dear by the entrenched establishment?

Sometimes, but if so, we should inject new processes and judges, and never stop trying to improve the system.

Sometimes democratic processes can work well. I always look forward to seeing which painting the packing room staff choose from the Archibald contenders.

The votes that select the Triple J top 100 help celebrate new music each year and invariably introduce me to new Australian artists that I would not otherwise come across.  Categories like Unearthed High can provide opportunities for rising stars.

But systems that rely on elite judges or majority votes are less likely to be effective ways of identifying works of genius by people from outside the mainstream. I guess that tells us that established prizes aren’t everything. Obviously new forms of music like blues, jazz, and rap, emerged on their own merit without requiring the boost of formal recognition in the form of official prizes.

Some people worry cooperation and competition are forever in tension and that some prizes shift everyone into a mindset of competition. Many competitions are fun and it can be good to compete for the annual netball pennant but do we need a prize for the best lab work in second year geology? I saw such a prize once and when the student opened the envelope she laughed in genuine surprise – I asked her why and she said the prize came with a cheque for seven dollars. Prizes like this can be encouraging, they may motivate some people, and the price to pay doesn’t seem too great.

Another interesting criticism of prizes, like the Nobel Prizes, is that they perpetuate the myth of lone hero scientists, when in fact most human achievements result from cooperation rather than individual insights. Interestingly Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament was quite specific in limiting most of the prizes to three individuals, and three living people at that (so they could go on to do more work for society, supported by the cash prize).

This three people limitation causes all sorts of problems because a firm line has to be drawn and understandably people often question whether it has been drawn in the right place – did some worthy contributors miss out on recognition?

The answer is always – yes – but no system is perfect!

In sport as well, individual performance is important. Olympic medal winners are inspiring. Even in team sports, there is often an award for the “best on ground.”

In science too, people identify better with individuals, heroes, if you will, than with ideas. It is easier to be inspired by Marie Curie, than it is to appreciate the idea of radioactivity or to identify with the support network of other contributors. The Nobel Peace Prize can be given to large organisations, like the Red Cross, but it attracts more attention and debate, when it goes to an individual like Barrack Obama. And in this case I wonder if the very early awarding of this Prize was designed to drive him to contribute even more to world peace.

Which brings me to another point – are, and should, prizes, like statues, be used to push particular political purposes? Are we using them enough to highlight diversity and celebrate the achievements of new comers, who are not part of the establishment or should we eschew everything except strict criteria of merit – if we can define that, and sometimes one can, sometimes it is harder and in the eye of the beholder?

Importantly, many prizes contain a “best and fairest” aspect, indicating the score is not everything. The example is also important, the behaviours are partly what society wants to celebrate.

I feel that we need to keep working to make sure that awards reflect the values and composition of society, to ensure diversity, to recognise performance relative to opportunity, to be aware of our own pre-conceived ideas and ways of thinking. I think a lot more prize selection committees are doing just that and gradually the diversity of prize winners is improving. I’m confident that prizes will continue to make a positive contribution but we do have to keep balancing all the issues, politics, passions, cooperation, competition, and facts, and make improvements as best we can, just as we do in all other human endeavours – with different degrees of success!

Ultimately, I think prizes play an important role in highlighting what society values and squeezing more value from those celebrated. In the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories, Sherlock Holmes’ brother Mycroft, was the smarter of the two, but he kept out of the limelight and though he was occasionally consulted by the government, his expertise was not available to all of society. Sherlock was in the public eye and available to anyone. I would have liked to have awarded Mycroft a prize.

Prof. Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic,

UNSW Sydney


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