This year’s Nobel Prize winners in medicine or physiology, physics, and chemistry are testaments to how basic research can inform the progress of human health.
“The Nobel Prize is a global icon, and the annual awards are an invitation to the public to pause, celebrate, and reflect on how scientific research benefits the world by accelerating human progress,” said Mary Woolley, Research!America president and CEO. “We congratulate the awardees, thank them for their service to humankind, and look forward to the many ways they will inspire future generations to explore, discover, and innovate.”
The 2021 Nobel awardees in Physiology or Medicine – David Julius of the University of California, San Francisco (a Research!America alliance member), and Ardem Patapoutian of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA – are recognized for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch. Their research has helped build our understanding of how we perceive, engage, and experience the physical world around us.
Julius’ and Patapoutian’s separate discoveries unlocked how temperature and mechanical stimuli initiate electrical impulses in the nervous system. Our impressions of stimuli – and our ability to react – are crucial for us to adapt and survive in our constantly changing surroundings. The ion channels they identified are key to many physiological processes and are being explored to develop treatments for a wide range of disease conditions, including chronic pain.
The 2021 Nobel awardees in Physics – Sykuro Manabe of Princeton University; Klaus Hasselmann of Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany; and Giorgio Parisi of Sapienza University in Rome, Italy – are recognized for their work in finding hidden patterns in climate and other complex systems. Manabe was a pioneer in understanding climate change and his work laid the foundation for current climate models. Hasselmann’s work linked weather and climate in ways that help us understand both. Parisi’s discoveries into how to understand complex systems has broad applications beyond physics into other areas, including biology and neuroscience.
Their work is relevant as we recognize and seek to find innovative solutions to the effects of climate change, increasingly considered one of the most urgent threats to global public health.
The 2021 Nobel awardees in Chemistry – Benjamin List of Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany; and David W. C. MacMillian of Princeton University – are recognized for developing a new method for building molecules: organocatalysis. Their work, independent of each other, has allowed researchers to rapidly, and in a more environmentally-friendly way, construct everything from new pharmaceuticals to molecules that advance solar cell technology.
Their discovery is the product of seeing a simple idea no one else had imagined and it’s now used in countless labs all around the world. It’s pivotal work that really benefits the drug discovery process, allowing chemists to quickly and efficiently make the molecules they want without having to do extra purification steps or carry out extra reactions. These advances have helped drive the last 20 years of pharmaceutical innovation and drug development.
Public funding advances research
All of the U.S.-based Nobel Prize winners this year have received public funding for their work. Julius and Patapoutian’s research over the years has been supported by several Institutes of the NIH – NINDS, NIDCR, NIGMS, and NHLBI.
MacMillian, whose award was announced this morning, has also been supported by the NIGMS, making him the newest of the 166 NIH-supported researchers who have been sole or shared awardees of 98 Nobel Prizes.
Manabe spent much of his career working at or affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and an early part of his career at what is now the National Weather Service.
Each of these leaders has advanced our understanding of the world in new and profound ways that speak to the role of scientific discovery to advance and improve the human condition. It is a testament to the necessity and essential value of basic research which may not show immediate relevance to health but can transform our understanding and lay the groundwork for progress against disease and other threats to our well-being.
The Nobel Prize announcements each year highlight the importance of sustained federal investments in basic research as a catalyst for new discoveries that benefit us all.