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Frontiers of knowledge Updated: 13 Oct 2021

The Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, a prelude to the Nobel

In 2021, three of the six Nobel Prizes - in Economic Sciences, Medicine and Physics - were presented to researchers who had previously received a Frontiers of Knowledge Award. These awards, which the BBVA Foundation has presented for the past 13 years, have established themselves as a prelude to the Nobel Prize. This is due to the ability of Frontiers of Knowledge juries to preempt the Swedish Academy. The Frontiers of Knowledge Awards have recognized 20 individuals who months or years later went on to receive a Nobel Prize.

David Card, in the Economic Sciences category;  David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, in the category of Medicine, and the climate scientists Klaus Hasselmann and Syukuro Manabe, in the Physics category, were the latest to join the long list of researchers and scholars whose contributions were recognized by the Frontiers of Knowledge prior to the Nobel.

In 2014, Card received the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Economics, Finance and Management for developing data analysis methods to explain the economic behavior of individuals, households and firms around key issues like savings or employment. Former Frontiers recipients Paul R. Milgrom and Robert B. Wilson won the Nobel Prize in this same category in 2020.

“I grew up on a farm and the farm business is like a puzzle; I discovered that with economics I could explain their pieces,” said Card during the interview he gave on the occasion of his award, which can be viewed below.

Klaus Hasselmann won the Frontiers of Knowledge in 2009 for developing methods which established that recent global warming trends are primarily attributable to human activities. “We have been able to demonstrate that human action is changing our climate, and this is an important scientific breakthrough,” he said after learning about the jury’s decision.

In this same line of research, in 2016 the Frontiers’ jury recognized Sykuro Manabe’s pioneer use of mathematical models to project the response of Earth’s climate to changing concentrations of atmospheric CO2. Today, scientists use dozens of models to forecast climate changes, all of which have been built leveraging the pioneering work of the Japanese researcher.

Distinguishing a gentle breeze from the prick of a cactus

Julius and Patapoutian received the Frontiers prize for identifying “new families of receptors that enable us to sense temperature, pain and pressure.” Or, paraphrasing the awardees, they allow us to recognize a gentle breeze or the prick of a cactus.

“I could have not even imagined, as an 18-year old refugee from Lebanon to the United States, to have a life in the sciences. Perhaps because of my background, I try not to take things for granted, and I consider myself privileged to be a scientist,” said Ardem Patapoutain during the Frontiers of Knowledge ceremony held in Bilbao this past September.

David Julius, for his part, explained how research on the sensing of pungency in food could potentially lead to the development of novel analgesics. After identifying the receptor gene for the spicy ingredient in chili peppers or Padrón peppers, he focused on researching other roles of this protein, because, as the biochemist explains in the interview linked below, “it couldn’t be that it was only there to appreciate spicy food.”

The Global Scope of the Awards

The Frontiers of Knowledge Awards recognize and encourage contributions of a singular impact, especially those that significantly broaden the scope of our current knowledge by causing new fields to emerge or resulting from the interaction between different disciplinary areas or in different domains of science, art, and the humanities.

These prizes, which consist of 400,000 euros in each category, have been recognized internationally as the only awards with a global scope that place research regarding our planet at the same level as basic sciences, medicine or economics.

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, were chosen by the BBVA Foundation for a Frontiers Award in Biology and Biomedicine in 2017. In that same  edition, the Nobel Prize in Economics went to Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson, previous winners of Frontiers Awards in Economics, Finance Management in 2013 and 2016, respectively.

In 2019, four new Nobel Laureates were previously recognized with a Frontiers: Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo in Economics (Frontiers 2008 in Development Cooperation) and Didier Queloz and Michel G. E. Mayor in Physics (Frontiers 2011 in Basic Sciences). In previous editions, Shinya Yamanaka and James P. Allison, both Frontiers in Biomedicine, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2012 and 2018, respectively; Robert J. Lefkowitz, Frontiers in Biomedicine, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012. In Economics, Finance and Business Management, three Frontiers winners, were later awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics: Lars Peter Hansen (2013), Jean Tirole (2014) and Angus Deaton (2015). Finally, William Nordhaus received the 2018 Nobel in Economics after winning the Frontiers Award in Climate Change earlier that year.