This year marked the centenary of the Nobel Foundation. The announcement of the 2001 winners was somewhat dwarfed by the events that followed the atrocities of September 11th.The sentiments on which the prizes were founded, however, make pertinent reading in the current scientific climate.

The words of Alfred Nobel's will on the allocation of the prizes are simple and well known, " those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." This year's recipients amply demonstrate such principles at work (see page 6). Corneii, Wieman, and Ketterle's realization of Bose-Einstein could provide a route from theoretical physics to novel applications. The chiral catalysts developed by Knowles, Noyori, and Sharpless are already in use in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals such as L-DOPA and widely useful antibiotics. The Nobel for Physiology and Medicine awarded to three scientists for their work on the cell cycle in yeast and sea urchins shows how, like the physics prize, fundamental science can have an enormous but perhaps, to the lay eye, less obvious impact out of the lab - in this case on cancer treatment. 

The pressure to be 'beneficial to mankind' and 'technologically relevant' is undoubtedly present in scientific research, but the best way to reach such goals is subject to hotter debate. How is the pursuit of fundamental research that may - or may not - have immediate concrete benefits to be balanced with more directly 'applied' work? Such is one of the questions raised in Daniel S. Greenberg's book Science, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion [The University of Chicago Press, Chicago (2001)]. Greenberg traces the roots of this recent dichotomy back to Vannevar Bush's separation of science - with its 'freedom of inquiry' driven by scientific curiosity - and technology. Ironically enough, such a separation would probably seem an anathema to Nobel who was himself an inventor and entrepreneur. 

But Greenberg also presents a disturbing image of a research machine that has lost sight of its purpose to be of 'benefit of mankind'. With the book's title revealing the essence of his thesis, he asserts that the drive for more funding has tainted science and pushed ethical considerations into a back seat. One of the crucial problems, as he sees it, is a lack of criticism from outside the scientific establishment. And here indeed the 'scientific enterprise', as Greenberg calls it, finds itself in a conundrum. With scientists often complaining that what media coverage there is tends to fall into a 'heroes' or 'enemies' mentality, could such an external and independent 'science critic' exist? Is it possible - or even desirable - for a generalist to comment on the specialist?

 Whatever view one takes on Greenberg's standpoint, the consideration and debate of such issues can only be good. To quote from Greenberg's Epilogue, "The object is to encourage science to bear its responsibilities in a new millennium dominated by the works of science". A noble sentiment indeed.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(01)80048-1