In the mid-1960s, Robert Paine, a scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, discovered a hidden organizing principle in the coastal ecosystem he was studying. When a certain species of starfish was present, a panoply of algae, limpets, barnacles, anemones and mussels lived in delicate, dynamic balance. But when he removed the starfish and tossed them into the ocean, that balance collapsed and one kind of mussel took over.
Dr. Paine coined a term to describe the starfish’s outsize influence: keystone species. Keystone species have since been identified in forests, in grasslands, in the ocean and even in the human gut. The concept has become one of ecology’s guiding theoretical principles, and it has had a profound impact, inspiring, among other things, the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, where they help control elk that can otherwise overgraze aspen and willow trees.
If Dr. Paine, who passed away in June, had been a physicist, chemist or cell biologist, such a fundamental, broadly applicable and hugely influential paradigm would probably have put him in contention for a Nobel Prize. But Paine was an ecologist, so he had no shot at the prestige, power and wealth that the Nobels bestow. The same can be said for the world’s top geologists, oceanographers, meteorologists, climatologists, crop scientists, botanists, entomologists and practitioners of many other fields.
Science’s reach has relentlessly expanded to include ever more facets of our world, and it has become increasingly important to our lives. But the world’s most important scientific honor society has largely ignored that evolution. As a result, the Nobel Prizes, which will be announced this week, are reserved for an ever-shrinking fraction of the scientific community and are receding from the interests of society at large. It’s high time for an update.
Read the full article in the New York Times.