Forecasting the Nobels: Predicting the Science Winners of the World's Most Prestigious Prize

In two weeks, the Nobel Prizes will be announced from Stockholm, conferring science's highest accolade on a very few chosen researchers. In celebration, Thomson Reuters has released its annual list of Citation Laureates -- scientists whose key contributions and measurable acclaim from their fellow researchers place them in contention for a Nobel Prize.

For more than a decade, Thomson Reuters has identified likely Nobel Prize winners by focusing in particular on those researchers whose published papers are most frequently read and footnoted -- or "cited" -- by their peers. A high citation rate is a tangible mark of esteem, indicating that a researcher's work has wielded considerable influence in the scientific community.

Since 2002, when Thomson Reuters first officially released its annual batch of Nobel contenders, 27 from the collective ranks of Citation Laureates have gone on to win the Nobel Prize. The year 2011 marked a high point, as all nine of the winners in medicine, physics and chemistry had previously been selected as Citation Laureates, either in 2008 or 2010. Now, Thomson Reuters has once again plumbed the citation data in its Web of ScienceSM research database to tip possible winners.

Last year at Nobel time, the scientific world was still abuzz over the apparent discovery of the subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson a few months earlier. On that occasion, however, Thomson Reuters noted that a quick physics prize was unlikely, given the need for scientists to study and confirm the discovery, and to see if the particle indeed fulfilled its promise of tying together fundamental theories about matter and energy.

This year, given the subsequent validation of the Higgs discovery, Thomson Reuters recognizes two researchers who predicted the boson. One, quite fittingly, is Peter W. Higgs, the man for whom the particle was given its popular name, after he theorized its existence in a 1964 paper. Also selected as a Citation Laureate is Francois Englert, a Belgian researcher who, with colleague and countryman Robert Brout, independently proposed the boson in 1964, before Higgs's paper appeared.

Brout died in 2011, and because Alfred Nobel's will stipulated that the prize not be awarded posthumously, Brout's name is no longer in contention. But Thomson Reuters has picked two of the three scientists who anticipated the particle properly known as the Brout-Englert-Higgs boson. Whether the Nobel committee chooses to honor their achievement so promptly -- the average lag time between a discovery and a Nobel Prize in physics is now about 25 years -- remains to be seen.

Also in the realm of physics, Thomson Reuters has selected three researchers who have discovered planets beyond our solar system: so-called "extrasolar" planets, or "exoplanets." The modern era of this quest began in earnest in 1995, when Michael Mayor and Dider Queloz, by tracking orbital variations in a star designated 51 Pegasi some 50 light-years from Earth, deduced the existence of a massive exoplanet orbiting the star. The discovery was confirmed by Geoffrey Marcy.

Today, the search for exoplanets is thriving, with data from the NASA Kepler mission and other facilities confirming nearly 1,000 exoplanets along with several thousand candidates. Space scientists speculate that the exoplanets in our Milky Way galaxy number in the tens of billions.

Meanwhile, this year's parcel of Nobel candidates in the field of chemistry includes three scientists who developed an approach to synthesizing molecules known as "modular click chemistry." M.G. Finn, Valery V. Fokin and K. Barry Sharpless advanced a method that relies on simple chemical reactions that produce small subunits, which can then be combined into molecular structures with desired characteristics.

Click chemistry, which is also notable for its use of water and other environmentally friendly solvents, has now found a widening array of applications -- in the life sciences, for example, in the creation of molecular biomarkers that can be inserted into cells to track the progression of disease. And in materials science, click chemistry's uses have included the development of surface coatings for semiconductors and other devices.

If click-chemistry pioneer K. Barry Sharpless is recognized for his contributions, it will actually be his second Nobel Prize. Sharpless shared part of the chemistry award in 2001 for his work on oxidation reactions involving asymmetric molecules. If honored again, he will join only three other scientists to have twice won a Nobel Prize in science: Marie Sklodowski-Curie (Physics, 1903; Chemistry, 1911); John Bardeen (Physics, 1956 and 1972); and Frederick Sanger (Chemistry, 1958 and 1980). Linus Pauling is another two-time Nobel Prize winner, but his second was for Peace in recognition of his anti-nuclear weapons campaigning.

Sharpless, of course, along with the rest of the Citation Laureates from this year and years past, will have to await the decision of the Nobel committee.

The 2013 Thomson Reuters Citation Laureates


A. Paul Alivisatos of the University California, Berkeley, Chad A. Mirkin of Northwestern University and Nadrian C. Seeman of New York University.

For contributions to DNA nanotechnology

Bruce N. Ames of the University of California, Berkeley

For the invention of the Ames test of mutagenicity

M.G. Finn of Georgia Institute of Technology, Valery V. Fokin of the Scripps Research Institute, and K. Barry Sharpless of the Scripps Research Institute

For the development of modular click chemistry


François Englert of the University Libré de Bruxelles, and Peter W. Higgs of the University of Edinburgh

For their prediction of the Brout-Englert-Higgs boson

Hideo Hosono of the Tokyo Institute of Technology

For his discovery of iron-based superconductors

Geoffrey W. Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva and Didier Queloz of the University of Cambridge and the University of Geneva

For their discoveries of extrasolar planets

Physiology or Medicine

Adrian P. Bird of the University of Edinburgh, Howard Cedar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Aharon Razin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

For fundamental discoveries concerning DNA methylation and gene expression

Daniel J. Klionsky of the University of Michigan, Noboru Mizushima of the University of Tokyo and Yoshinori Ohsumi of the Tokyo Institute of Technology

For elucidating the molecular mechanisms and physiological function of autophagy

Dennis J. Slamon, University of California, Los Angeles

For pioneering research identifying the HER-2/neu oncogene, leading to more effective cancer therapy


Joshua D. Angrist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, David E. Card of the University of California, Berkeley, and Alan B. Krueger, Princeton University

For their advancement of empirical microeconomics

Sam Peltzman University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and Richard Posner, United States Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and University of Chicago

For extending economic theories of regulation

Sir David F. Hendry, University of Oxford, M. Hashem Pesaran, University of Southern California, and Peter C.B. Phillips, Yale University

For their contributions to econometric time-series, including modeling, testing, and forecasting