Despite being the most prestigious scientific award, the Nobel Prizes have only been around for 115 years. This was because only during the 17th century, at the very origins of modern experimental science, promoters of science realised there was a need for some sort of recognition or reward that would provide incentive to propel scientific advancements.

According to history, early astronomers, philosophers, physicians, alchemists and engineers often offered scientific achievements, discoveries, inventions and works of literature or art as gifts to powerful patrons - more often than not, royalty.

Authors then prefaced their publications with extravagant letters of dedication, and - might or might not - have been rewarded with a gift in return. Many of these gentleman scientists - scientists who pursue research as a hobby and through independent means, rather than external funds - were not part of academia; even those who received a modest academic salary, lacked large institutional funders. Therefore, gifts from patrons provided a crucial means of support, but they came with many strings attached.

Prizes, awards and salaried academic positions then became more common and pleasing wealthy patrons diminished in importance. But at the peak of the Renaissance, scientific precursors relied on gifts from powerful royals to compensate and publicise their efforts.

The Renaissance period of gift-giving

Galileo gained the title of court philosopher and mathematician after he presented his newly discovered moons of Jupiter to the Medici dukes as a
Galileo gained the title of court philosopher and mathematician after he presented his newly discovered moons of Jupiter to the Medici dukes as a "gift" that was out of this world.


Gifts usually had to be presented dramatically to make a lasting impression on the royals. Galileo Galilei presented his newly discovered moons of Jupiter to the Medici dukes as a "gift" that was out of this world and in return, Galileo gained the title of court philosopher and mathematician.

Galileo was fortunate to receive a gift that advanced his career. Others such as Tycho Brahe, the great Danish astronomer, received everything from cash to chemical secrets, exotic animals and islands in recognition for his discoveries.

The wealthy patrons also often bestowed gold portrait medals with their own images, much like the Nobel medal. The medal was of little value as it rarely brought fame nor could it be resold without offending the patron, but the chain that came with it was usually sold.

Experimental science required more than gift-giving

However, academics already realised that gift-giving could not sustain experimental science. Experimentation required the collection of data from various locations across a period of time that individuals could not carry out themselves.

Gifts emphasised competitive individualism rather than scientific collaboration, and while some competitive rivalry inspired and advanced science, it also led to false displays and secrecy that often happened in courtly gift-giving.

Scientific reformers also feared that scientists would only tackle problems that resulted in gifts of value, leaving unfinished problems to the side.

An excerpt from Robert Boyles - a seventeenth-century polymath, chemist, and fellow of the Royal Society - desiderata. Photo credit:  Boyle Papers 8, fols. 209, The Royal Society
An excerpt from Robert Boyles - a seventeenth-century polymath, chemist, and fellow of the Royal Society - desiderata. Photo credit: Boyle Papers 8, fols. 209, The Royal Society


Therefore experimental scientists saw the reform of rewards as vital to radical changes in the pace and scale of scientific discovery. For example, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), lord chancellor of England and a great supporter of experimental science, called for the appreciation of "approximations" or incomplete attempts at reaching a particular result.

Instead of focusing to appease patrons, he hoped that many researchers could be encouraged to work together to achieve the same ends via a well-publicised research wish list.

The reform of scientific recognition

Bacon was a pivotal figure in experimental science. He coined the term "desiderata" that is still used by researchers today to represent widespread research goals. He also suggested ways to advance discovery by exploiting the human want for fame; a row of statues that celebrated famous inventors of the past were paired with rows of empty plinths upon which researchers aspire to have their own busts resting on.

Bacon's technique worked and collaborative scientific societies began in the mid-17th century. This offered a new forum for authors to attempt answering ambitious research problems that might not result in an individual complete publication. The journals then began a means to entice discovery by offering credit.

Academies then began offering essay prizes upon particular topics and provided satisfaction of seeing one's name in print. States also offered rewards for solutions that answered desired problems. This idea of using a prize to attract attention to a problem is still being practiced today.

The reform from gift-giving to prize-giving has transformed the advancement of scientific discoveries. However, the need for monetary support is still present, therefore there is much competition to obtain funding but researchers no longer have to present their innovations based on the satisfaction of individual wealthy patrons. MIMS

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Sources:
https://thefinchandpea.com/who-is-a-gentleman-scientist/
https://theconversation.com/before-nobels-gifts-to-and-from-rich-patrons-were-early-sciences-currency-66360
http://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/history/history-ideas-and-intellectual-history/knowledge-and-public-interest-15751725?format=HB
http://theappendix.net/issues/2014/7/perchance-to-dream-science-and-the-future